November 5, 2010
An obligation to honor
Getting proper care for our elders requires action.
The Jewish Seniors Alliance presented its fall forum, Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother: Negotiating Power Shifts on Oct. 24, at Congregation Beth Israel. For most of the mature audience, the “power” in their lives was likely shifting and they were, on the whole, eager to hear the best ideas of how to deal with the changes they will experience.
The speakers’ panel consisted of five experts, including Rabbi Jonathan Infeld, Cantor Michael Zoosman, family therapist Clarissa Green, Simon Fraser University gerontologist Gloria Gutman and gerontologist and social worker Gloria Levi.
Infeld started the evening by jokingly referencing the emergency exits, should audience members get too exhausted by the speeches, and told several classic Jewish stories demonstrating the power of honoring parents. He said that, according to Judaism, the action of honoring parents is equivalent to honoring God.
Zoosman talked about his experiences as the local chaplain for Jewish inmates, where he comes into contact with many marginalized people. He gave the audience five examples of how complicated these interactions can be, for example, when a family has been estranged for decades, when a parent has a gambling problem which the child has investigated behind her back or when a child has never met a parent that is in prison for a life sentence. What are the limits? How might we react in these situations? Zoosman asked the audience to think about honoring parents in the context of these examples.
Green is a family therapist with a specialty in crises. She spoke about children in midlife and the pivotal transition they face, using a short film to demonstrate those family dynamics. Green asked those gathered to consider a family’s history, who has power, and how a social worker could help with the transitions. Green also talked about the difficulties faced by the family caregiver who experienced mixed emotions, knowing one’s limits and the approach of speaking clearly and honestly while looking for help.
Levi faciliated the discussion that followed, including comments from one audience member who said the situation in the film was not realistic. She wanted to know what practical steps to take when there is an elder with dementia living in your home. Questions remained: What can I do? When is it alright to stop and look for alternative care? As follow up, Green suggested that it’s dangerous when a family is isolated and how important it is to be part of a community.
Gutman is a world-renowned expert on elder abuse and has written many books and articles on the subject. According to statistics, four to six percent of elders suffer abuse, she said, and it’s a problem that appears in the home but also in institutions, which are often understaffed or have poorly trained caregivers.
Women are abused more than men, Gutman said, pointing out to the audience that elder abuse is a form of bullying. Getting money by force from an elder, Gutman noted, is abuse and is, most definitely, a crime.
Gutman warned those gathered that they are all potential victims and that an abuser may seem, at first, to be helpful. A group of lawyers in Toronto who specialize in abuse, Gutman said, report that the most common complaint from elders is “who decides for me,” and that it is often assumed that seniors have no rights. Power of attorney, for example, has been used to sell a senior’s house, who was then kicked out of that house by a son-in-law. A wise thing to have, Gutman said, is a Representation Agreement. In this, elders can choose who will make decisions, if they are unable to make decisions for themselves. She reminded those at the forum that there are places to report such abuse and that it’s important to know how to access help.
There was so much enthusiasm and so many questions that many sat for a half-hour or more to discuss their own issues while refreshments were served.
Dena Dawson, a freelance writer, used to be a long-term care ombudsman in Seattle.