Question: “RE: article in NYT Feb.14 2012 Science/Health section about a Senior Residence Facility passing an edict that residents in the Assisted Living and Nursing facility can not eat in the same dining room as the independent living residents. (I recommend you read the article). Some couples and friends can no longer dine together. Various reasons were cited for the decision. Space, mobility, safety, and concern about depressing the independent residents, among other reasons. This is screaming out to me as a great discussion topic in Jewish values. I can point to the values of caring for the sick and disabled, treating your neighbor as you would like to be treated, honoring the elderly, etc., but I am looking for specific sources and quotes to use as a teaching lesson. Thanks.”
The complicated situation that this article details (“Tables Reserved for the Healthiest” NYTimes for February 9, 2012, found online at http://newoldage.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/09/tables-reserved-for-the-healthiest/?ref=health) can easily break one’s heart. To hear that couples have been separated, or that seniors with disabilities were excluded because they seemed – by someone in authority – to be unable to care for themselves in the communal dining room, is shameful. And yet, when one reads this report, one begins to see the various sides of this issue.
As with many – if not all – ‘ethical matters’, selecting one particular course of action is not a choice between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but rather between many competing ‘good’ values. We want to honor those who want to live independently and, at the same time, it’s vital to be concerned about the safety and health of all the residents. When we filter out the voices of exclusivity from that article (“I should be able to have what we call quiet enjoyment,” said one female resident. And “It’s a very upscale community,” said [the developer and current executive director of the Norfolk facility]. He continued, “When someone comes in wearing a coat and tie, with guests, they want an ambience of fine dining”.), I think we can find points of contention between competing values.
So it’s not a matter of one side being more correct than another. But using one specific Jewish value one might be able to see a pathway toward resolving the question.
I begin with a commandment from the book of Leviticus. In chapter 19, verse 32, we read, “Rise up in the presence of the hoary head, pay honor to the elderly. You shall fear your God: I am the Eternal.” This teaches that we are to ‘honor’ and ‘pay respect’ to the elderly; and the “fear” that this verse speaks about leads us to be mindful of the importance of this value: Our ancestors believed that a violation would lead to divine retribution, so we were instructed to watch our behavior toward and our words about very carefully.
So there is no question that the elderly have a special place in Jewish praxis. And since exclusion from certain activities or facilities is anathema to this value of honoring our elderly, we need to define this value for us and for those whom we are to honor. That may be all the prompting you need for a values-based discussion on this article.
What does it mean to honor? When someone becomes ill during dinner and ‘throws up,’ do we honor the sensibilities of those who can’t deal with someone becoming sick, or do we honor the ill and have compassion for their situation? Concerning the safety issue, do we honor the elderly who want to live completely independently, or do we honor the other residents who have legitimate safety concerns about wheelchairs that can pose safety risks, and find someone to accompany them through the buffet line, a place admittedly where there are safety issues?
These are the ethical questions that can form the basis for a properly guided discussion on what it means to honor the elderly.