God Squad: For elderly, visits mean a lot

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God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday. ...

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Q I run a nursing home, and I'm very proud of my staff. They tend to the needs of the residents with love and compassion that goes far beyond their official duties. However, I am deeply concerned, and have been for a long time, about the abandonment of our residents by their own families.

Many families don't visit at all, and some come only infrequently. There's just no way for our staff to make up for this hole in the patients' lives. I'm hoping you might encourage readers and their friends to visit their family members and the parents and grandparents of others who are living out their last days in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. This small kindness would make a huge difference in the quality of life for these dear elderly and infirm people.

-- Anonymous, via email

A The biblical commandment to visit the sick is a high and holy one for people of every faith, and I wholeheartedly endorse your gentle rebuke of those who do not visit nursing home patients enough.

I fully understand that the old practice of bringing Grandma or Grandpa into your home to live out his or her last days is no longer possible for many families. In a two-income household, there is no adult at home during the day to meet the needs of immediate family, much less care for an elderly parent.

It's also a fact of modern life that quite often children and grandchildren don't live in the same city as their parents and grandparents, and this makes visiting a rare and expensive effort. However, I do agree with your concerns, in general.

The limits of modern life also impose upon all children and grandchildren with loved ones in nursing homes a special and sacred obligation to find time to visit them, feed them, laugh with them and bring them up to date on family happenings. I know how much this means to them. I see many of them when I visit my dear friend Father Tom Hartman here, or when I visit my mother in Milwaukee.

Many nursing home patients sit all day looking out the windows or trying to find something to do to pass the time. I also know that when family members start letting visits slip by, it's hard to break the habit. Out of sight and out of mind is an aphorism that is often sadly true. The old question of why one mother can care for five children, but five children cannot care for one mother continually rears its head.

Let me say, however, that such neglect is not universal. Many families do take time to visit their parents and grandparents in nursing facilities. Their visits bring a deep measure of joy and serenity to patients.

When I visit a cemetery, I always make it a habit to visit the grave of somebody I didn't know and to say a prayer at their grave. When I visit Tommy, I try to greet and share a few moments with some of the beautiful people who surround him at his wonderful nursing facility. I always leave feeling they've given more to me than I've given to them. Their bodies may be frail, but, like Tommy, most of their smiles are completely healthy.

We live in a world where new is good and old is ... well, just old. One of the many reasons the Bible gives me such comfort is that it reminds me, in God's words, of an older world in which the elderly were the honored possessors of wisdom and authority.

In the Book of Leviticus, we read: "thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of the old man, and fear thy God: I am the LORD." (Leviticus: 19:32) The deeper meaning of this simple verse to me is that we should do more than just think respectfully of the aged; we should do something that shows our respect.

Visiting them in nursing homes, and definitely calling regularly, is something we can do for those who are responsible not only for the color of our eyes but also for the content of our characters. Perhaps we can't change this world, but we can change this day for someone waiting for us -- for someone who is waiting for anyone.

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