Every 7.5 seconds, an American turns 60. Member of the first wave of baby boomers are joining their parents in creating a demographic tipping point unprecedented in our history.
We now see the longest living, most mobile and most spiritually challenging multi-generational cohort of older adults in American history. How we respond to this challenge will go a long way toward determining the shape of religious life in the 21st century. Rituals for older adults bring substance and texture to new stages in life, and creating appropriate ones must be a part of our commitment to address extended life spans.
Perhaps no scenario captures the tensions of contemporary life better than that in which a loved one must cope with caring for a spouse who is mentally and physically confined due to dementia. While there are no exact figures for the number of baby boomers currently impacted by Alzheimer’s, it is estimated that the numbers of those suffering from the disease in this country will double or even triple by 2050 as the population ages.
This growing population of older adults face issues unique to their situation, and it is incumbent upon our community’s religious leaders to develop responses that address them.
Take, for example, the dilemma of a healthy spouse — let’s call her Sarah — caring for her husband, who is restricted to an Alzheimer’s facility. Sarah must deal with the extended institutionalization of her spouse. She cares for him with love and dignity, but also feels that he is not really her spouse.
How does Sarah handle the reality that, while on a brief respite from the demands of care giving, she met someone with whom she became friendly and intimate? She cannot discuss this with her children, or even with her circle of friends.
So Sarah asks her rabbi, “Tell me, rabbi, am I doing something wrong? I love and care for my husband. But I am a healthy 70-year-old woman, who goes to work, enjoys life and has needs. Is it wrong? Am I supposed to just put my needs on hold?”
Such a scenario is not at all fiction. I have heard versions of this story over and over again, across the country.
These real-life situations should prompt us to reinterpret the concept of adultery. The wild card of medical technology may allow those souls afflicted with Alzheimer’s to remain “alive” for years, perhaps decades. They deserve all the love and care they receive.
And yet, what of the spouse? In this scenario — one that is present in nearly every community — is the caregiver guilty of adultery?
Is it not the responsibility of our religious leaders to find ways to discuss this kind of situation?
For centuries, Judaism has searched its rich and powerful tradition in order to provide answers to the questions of the day. Is it not logical, and expected, that in order to address the dilemma of Sarah and others like her, ought we not turn to that same tradition?
In a recent class on the impact of the longevity revolution on Jewish life, rabbinical students of mine at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion began to engage the conversation of developing a response to Sarah’s scenario. They researched the possibility of adapting the biblical concept of pilegesh, or concubine, to reflect this changing of life stages. They also created documents for a couple to explore how Judaism could look at these issues in light of current medical realities.
The longevity revolution has created a variety of new life stages, and the need to create moments of ritual that support and inform them represents a fascinating and dynamic development in contemporary religious life.
We are once again confronted with the challenge of having our religion adapt to new realities. It is an opportunity to teach our values in unprecedented ways and to let our values speak to the realities of an ever-expanding life.
Rabbi Richard Address is director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns.