I HAVE REACHED a point in my life as an immigrant where if I want to see my parents, I need to go to them. Due to health issues, my parents, may they live and be well, are not flying to Israel any time in the foreseeable future. My parents live at Gurwin Jewish Assisted Living in Commack, Long Island. My mother has some short-term memory challenges and my father has some cognitive difficulties as well as extremely limited mobility. They have a 2-bedroom unit at Gurwin, and I occupied the guest bedroom for four nights this summer.
During my stay it was clear to me why my three siblings in the U.S. need to devote significant time to my parents’ care. The assistance that Gurwin provides is primarily three kosher meals a day and some activities. With several hundred residents at the facility and a limited staff, they are not in a position to be able to assess each person’s needs on an ongoing basis. Of course, one can ramp up the “assistance” for additional fees, ranging from getting help with showering and dressing (we pay for this for my father), to hiring an outside personal aide.
My stay at Gurwin was a true learning experience. I was dumbfounded by the complete disconnect between a person’s age, physical appearance and abilities, and their mental faculties. I had several meals at the same table as an octogenarian man who has Parkinson’s disease, who could not eat unassisted, who had difficulty speaking, and yet whose mind was clear—clear enough for him to give a presentation to all the residents on his hobby of Jewish genealogy (which he pursues using a computer).
The quite broad spectrum of commitment to Jewishness and Judaism is a particular challenge to my Dad, who, though basically rejecting supernaturalism, is a huge believer in the Jewish people (“Dad,” I told him, “what you need is a Reconstructionist Jewish assisted living facility; the only problem is that there are none”). My father is not naive enough to think that his fellow residents (not all of whom are Jewish) would not have children or grandchildren who married “out,” but he expects them to at least be miserable about it. In protest, my father, who never wore his kippa out of the house, has taken to wearing a rather large black yarmulke at all times.
I can’t help but adding here that I found it extremely poignant that one of the Gurwin women residents likes to eat matza every day for breakfast (when I asked her about this she said: “I like it with butter”). Why poignant? The woman told me, with some sadness, that she would be flying to Germany in a few weeks to attend the wedding of her grandson to a non-Jewish woman.
For people in better health than my parents, Gurwin better lives up to its name. Take Ben (96) and Sonia (95), for example. They have been married for 70 years and are still eager to learn new things. They moved to Gurwin for the easy access to socializing with their peers and to be freed from meal preparation. Ben and Sonia asked to sit with me for a first-hand report about what’s going on in Israel, and during our time together they asked insightful and perceptive questions. I came away from my time at Gurwin thinking that independent living should try to be preserved but not at all costs. If you are able to go out and socialize and do activities and (if need be) have someone take care of basic cooking and cleaning, then fine; otherwise, assisted living is a good alternative—especially if you have at least one child to regularly check up on you.
Teddy Weinberger, Ph.D., is Director of Development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.