In this Seekers of Meaning Podcast, Rabbi Address speaks with Rabbi Michael Goldman, creator and director of Seivah, a program whose goal is to create a society, starting with the organized Jewish community, in which dementia is demystified and destigmatized and where people feel welcomed and supported after their diagnosis. Dementia isolates not only the person who directly experiences it, but also his or her caregivers. Seivah supports both people with dementia and their loved ones and helps them to stay engaged with one another. The Seivah-trained volunteer companion provides a comforting, listening, non-judgmental presence for a person with dementia and his or her loved ones.
About the Guest
Pretty much everyone who works with people with dementia started down that path because of someone they knew. In Rabbi Michael Goldman’s case, it was his grandmother, Jeannette Goldman, of blessed memory, who died in the Fall of 1999, the year he entered the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
By the time he was ordained in 2005, Goldman had served as a chaplain in two assisted care facilities. He worked not only with geriatric residents, but also with those with HIV/AIDS and Huntington’s disease, both of which often cause their own forms of dementia.
The art of chaplaincy consists largely of being able to listen to someone, his or her joys and laments, on the speaker’s terms. The chaplain must try hard to accept the other’s worldview without passing judgment. All the more so when you’re practicing chaplaincy with people with dementia, where the chaplain has to listen hard and think creatively in order to establish the empathic bond. This is especially the case, Goldman learned, when people are no longer able to communicate verbally.
He served for five years as the Jewish Chaplain at Duke University, and then five years as a congregational rabbi at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, NY. During his time in that congregation, Goldman heard many stories of heartache from people struggling to take care of a parent, spouse, or sibling with dementia. Even those caregivers who were fortunate enough to afford good medical care and attendants still suffered with the enormous psychic burden brought on when their loved ones begin to act erratically, or no longer remember who they or their caregivers are. Just as his early training showed Goldman that people with dementia still have emotional and spiritual needs well into their post-verbal life, he now saw the parallel needs of the caregivers.
So, that’s why he founded Seivah: to help both people with dementia and those who love them to continue to grow spiritually, even in the midst of the suffering that dementia inevitably brings.