We are in the midst of our High Holy Days. That often means some increased anxiety about whether we will again be put into the “Book of Life.” For the elderly like myself, death feels more imminent. How, then, to age as well as possible given the opportunity to do so, and is there anything about successfully meeting that challenge which is particularly Jewish?
Last month, a documentary chosen by Laurie Herman was shown at our Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center which increased my interest in answering that question, especially since I was the discussant! It was titled “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast: After 90, People Don’t Retire. They Inspire.” How do the ideal portraits in the film apply more generally? Perhaps that is best memorably presented as an ABCs of Aging Well mentally and physically.
A: AGEISM. Ageism is one of the challenges and scourges of aging in modern America. Common negative attitudes toward the elderly can easily reduce self-esteem and a sense of being valued. Judaism has traditionally valued its elders.
B: BREAKFAST. Let breakfast stand for any meal, and it is well-known that certain diets, like the Mediterranean, have long been associated with longer lasting lives. We might assume that the traditional Ashkenazi diet that includes “schmaltz,” aka poultry fat, would not, but the popular fat-based Keto diet might suggest otherwise!
C: CREATIVITY. Being creative is certainly possible in many elderly. Jews are over-represented in the creativity leading to Noble Prizes.
D: DEATH. Some research indicates that intermittent thinking about one’s dying is better than not doing so or most always doing so. Our High Holy Days provide a concentrated focus on that aspect of life. Reading the daily obits (in the movie title) is one of the other ways to do so.
E: EXERCISE. It’s never too late to exercise. If physical and emotional health allows it, sexual exercise has unique benefits.
F: FORGIVENESS. The High Holy Days are a subscribed time for asking for forgiveness of others and God. Ample research indicates that forgiveness is good for one’s health and mental health, so this is a way to put our emotional affairs in order in addition to our practical affairs.
G: GENEROSITY. Helping others helps one’s own health and happiness. The elderly have much wisdom, and sometimes wealth, to share.
H: HUMOR. Freud recognized the unique aspects of Jewish humor, particularly making ourselves the target of our own jokes. Humor and laughter seem to lessen the harmful effects of too much stress.
I: IDENTITY. It can be therapeutic to put together our life’s narrative in one way or another. Composing an ethical will resonates well with our ethical monotheism.
J: JEWS. The last study from a decade ago indicated that Jewish people lived 2-7 years longer than those of other religious backgrounds (though not to the hundreds mentioned in the Torah, nor to the 2,000 year-old-man of Mel Brooks fame!).
K: KNOWLEDGE. We are known as the “People of the Book”; learn about aging.
L: LOVE. Though aging is accompanied by the loss of loved ones, that makes those still living, as well as our own remaining time to live, so precious. Grieve the losses and spend face-to-face time with the living.
M: MEANING. Having a sense of some important meaning and purpose in one’s life has great ongoing health benefits. The psychiatrist and author Viktor Frankl even found that out in his concentration camp, where thinking of loved ones led to better coping and survival.
Let’s stop at this hopefully meaningful juncture of M, and later add on N to Z. For instance, P might be for Positive Psychology, founded by the Jewish psychologist, Martin Seligman. L’Chaim! To life. To a positive late life.
Yours, Steven Moffic, M.D.
Steven Moffic, M.D., is an award-winning psychiatrist as a clinician, administrator, writer and artist, including receiving the one-time designation as a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the American Psychiatric Association. He is now retired from seeing patients. He and his wife Rusti are co-chairs of Tapestry, the Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center’s arts and ideas programs. Steven Moffic led a talk at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center on Sept. 4, 2019, regarding the film “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.”