Alzheimer’s: How to Preserve Dignity & Humanity

aging with dignity

There is no other way to say it than Alzheimer’s is a devastating disease. The Alzheimer’s association is telling us that in the next few decades, the ones corresponding to Boomer aging, we can expect the number of cases to grow from 5 million at present, to some 15 million. The sheer magnitude of this development is yet to be understood by society. We are also being told that, given this reality, there will not be enough qualified caregivers to meet this challenge. The costs of this coming wave; emotional, societal, financial and spiritual, cannot be overstated.

As powerful as these statistics are, what really is crucial is the dynamic that surrounds a family that, in many cases, struggles to care for a loved one. Those of us who have worked with these families, or have walked this walk, know all too well the many layers of this struggle. There is often the point when family members wonder if that loved one is “there”. The spiritual question of a person’s “self” often arises in these situations. If the mind has been diminished, if the cognitive ability is compromised, where is that person’s self?

This question, asked in a variety of ways, must also take into consideration the soul. Is the definition of a person only based on a person’s ability to reason? Is there something more than our humanity than just the ability to reason, speak and communicate? There is a danger in society to fall into a trap that sees such people as “less than” human beings. The pioneering work being done in many places is serving to remind us that, even when a person reaches the end stages of Alzheimer’s, there is still a human being in front of us. These individuals are still capable of being vehicles for love, and what we in Judaism refer to as sacred deeds or mitzvoth.

Jewish texts have been used to bring an interpretation to this idea that, no matter what stage or condition a person is in, their humanity is still present and that humanity needs to be preserved in dignity and sanctity. A story is told from our tradition about the tablets that Moses first brought to the people of Israel. In a fit of anger she threw them down and they broke. The story continues to state that Moses received a second set of tablets (upon which legend tells us that the 10 Commandments were inscribed) that were placed in the ark that traveled with the people in the Wilderness.

According to the story, the first set of broken tablets were saved and were placed in the ark, next to the newer set. The idea of keeping these “broken tablets” in this sacred place has been seen by some modern writers as symbolic of the idea that just because a person may be “broken”, they are still a representation of the sacred and thus, entitled to respect.

One of the great challenges that face our society in these coming years will be how we choose to confront and deal with this challenge of Alzheimer’s. It is one of the consequences of the revolution in longevity. This revolution has brought us so many blessings, and, has also brought to us challenges that will be unique to an aging society. It will be typical to see this issue played out in terms of economics. What we need never loose sight of is that behind the charts and graphs are real people and their families who struggle to care for a loved one with compassion and a sense of dignity. How we, as a society, choose to support them will say a lot about whom we choose to be.

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About Richard Address

Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min is the founder and editor of www.jewishsacredaging.com. He is the author of “Seekers of Meaning: Baby Boomers, Judaism and the Pursuit of Healthy Aging”. Rabbi Address developed the programs in family issues for the North American Reform Jewish movement and currently serves as a rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, N.J. He hosts the weekly “Boomer Generation Radio” in Philadelphia

One thought on “Alzheimer’s: How to Preserve Dignity & Humanity

  1. elainecp

    Nice article Richard and I agree! The reality is that Alzheimer’s is here, warping the life’s of families forever! I’ve dealt with it head on and somehow survived.

    I’m Elaine Pereira, author of the featured book I Will Never Forget! I support Alzheimer’s research through donations from book sales. “Help Me Help Others. Buy a Book!”

    Reply

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