In Dad’s Journey of Aging, We Both Found Community

Rebecca Neuwirth and her father. Photo courtesy the Neuwirth family.
Rebecca Neuwirth and her father. Photo courtesy the Neuwirth family.

BY REBECCA NEUWIRTH | My father was a very proud man. But aging and arthritis, combined with the body’s payback for a half-century of leading a bachelor’s life — with all its Sardi’s cocktails and 3 p.m. breakfasts of olive and cheese — took its toll. When he reached 80, he was a frequent visitor at the doctor’s.

But though Dad often accepted help gracefully and increasingly sought it for the small things in life (shopping as the heavy bags became unwieldy, crossing the street as his stride slowed down considerably), he did everything on his own terms and fiercely defended his independence to decide.

Would there have come a time when I would have had to force more help on him?

I often wondered where the lines were. When should I insist on taking action, and when should I stand by and respectfully watch? There were a million small questions: Do I buy him a walker, even if he doesn’t want it? (I bought it and he used it, and it felt good to be of help.) Can I insist that Dad eat healthily, or even just regularly? (I could not, especially when his ideas of health included the firm belief, abetted by a slew of ridiculous health articles, that diet soda was better than fruit juice.) Can I help with finances when they are getting complex? (That was an absolute “No” and must have touched on some very strong emotions, as I could not even bring it up without strife.)

There were selfish considerations too: Would I have been able to manage more help, financially and physically? And philosophical ones: Would it have killed my father’s spirit to insist against his will?

A few days before he died, I urged my dad to move even closer to me so I could provide him with more care: warm meals, daily visits. “Maybe in a few years, we can think of that,” he told me, and not because he didn’t like those things. His death spared me the hard decisions.

My story is not unique — it has made me part of the vast club of people who have watched their parents age and for whom this is, suddenly, deeply personal. And it’s impacted the way the world looks: I saw a man the other day whose gait was so slow that he ended up in the middle of the street when the light changed, dangerously turning his small frame to the oncoming traffic. How we treat the elderly, and if we even notice them, seems like a good a test of character.

It turns out that with all the challenges, my dad was neither unique nor unwise in wanting to stay at home. Decades of research show that “aging in place” — which means getting the help that makes it possible to continue to live at home — has real advantages. Emotionally, it allows aging individuals to retain their sense of independence and dignity, which in turn keeps them healthier. And financially, it is almost always more affordable for the individual and the government by very real margins, even when taking into consideration significant home care.

Still, staying at home requires a level of ongoing engagement, and many, many decisions.

And that takes a village, to borrow the phrase, and three key conditions that I believe need to be in place.

First, my father was blessed to live in a community that understands what it means to be supportive of aging people and their families. Our local Senior Center plays an outsized role in that. Ours is run by JASA (Jewish Association Serving the Aging) under the auspices of Penn South Social Services, and was founded 30 years back by UJA-Federation of New York, that offered seniors help in the residential community in which they lived. Today, the Penn South buildings we live in have a plethora of programs, from yoga to movie night, and social workers to help with individual questions and cases.

We availed ourselves of these services in different ways. My dad suspected he was too young for the classes, but he enjoyed the ping pong table — and while he usually didn’t take the advice of the social workers, he liked telling them jokes and they joyfully responded with the laughs and human contact that meant so much to him. It was me who availed myself of the service, asking the social workers for their wisdom on what was “normal” or a source of concern, and getting information on available options.

Second, at least as important as the services was the sense of connectedness that my father felt in his older years. Working at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish relief group that cares for people from children in poverty to elderly Holocaust survivors, I’ve witnessed the overwhelming importance of human contact, spiritual connection, a sense of meaning — all of those play an outsized role not only in mental but also in physical well-being.

We are fortunate that across our local Penn South community, there is an awareness of the challenges of aging that manifests itself not only in physical amenities, but also in attitudes. People stopped to help my dad all the time, and to talk with him; and he had the time to listen too, which they valued.

Our local synagogue, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, and my dad’s other synagogue from his Upper West Side days, Congregation Habonim, were exceptional as well in creating a warm community that welcomed my dad. I will never forget the Kol Nidre service I attended with my dad less than a year before he died. I insisted on bringing him in a wheelchair and a prime area had been reserved for us to sit — and so we sat together — just us without my kids — singing and praying in the tragic, hopeful way of that holiday, until late into the evening.

Those many small and positive interactions made his life not only possible, but also so much more pleasant. In retrospect, they also morphed the burden of his care into small blessings of connection and goodwill shared by many. Sometimes I would be angry at my father for asking assistance for many small daily tasks, but he insisted that most people were glad to offer aid, and I think he was right.

Finally, Dad’s most earnest desire was to be useful, and that made our last years together as a family fulfilling. Until the end, he babysat for my children, entertaining them with word games and stories for hours on end, even when he couldn’t easily walk or horse around.

Creating meaningful opportunities to contribute and real social connections was the key not only for my dad to remain vivid, but also for us too to profit from him and his many gifts and to form our own identities in the process.

What incredible talent we have in our communities — mentors and chess teachers and witnesses to history — and how we rob ourselves when we consign them to the past prematurely. We need to do more to harness intergenerational cooperation, not just as isolated “community service” opportunities, but as part of how we live and play.

Part of the challenge of our time is to create stronger communities across many lines, and to turn the issue of aging from a personal or family burden to a shared communal responsibility — and opportunity. We have a very real, a very personal interest in getting this right.

Rebecca Neuwirth, a seasoned nonprofit professional who is engaged in strategic philanthropy for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, lives in Penn South with her family.