My father, a Reform rabbi, presided over every Jewish lifecycle event in my life, as well as my sister’s — bris/brit bat (baby naming), consecration, bar/bat mitzvah, confirmation and our weddings.
Now, however, the tables have turned. We are the ones presiding over events as he, at 92, is in the final cycle of his Jewish life. May he live to 120, as the saying goes — but the reality is that he likely won’t, and the other unfortunate reality is that he will only need more help the closer he gets to it.
Arranging this help is a plight those of us with aging parents know all too well. That’s why a month ago, my sister and I reluctantly moved him to the independent side of an independent and assisted living facility in our hometown in New Jersey, just a few miles from his and our old house and synagogue.
Unfortunately, with the transition, dad decompensated dramatically — he was confused in his new surroundings — and my sister had to move in to care for him. Dad has always been allergic to change, and his doctor told us the older you are, the longer and harder the transition can be. Since his new apartment had been designated by the state for independent living only (though it was supposed to have been designated for independent and assisted living), if we wanted him to be in assisted living, he would have to move to yet another apartment in the complex. We just couldn’t subject him and ourselves to another move so soon after the first one. By the same token, it was clear that my sister couldn’t keep caring for him. She has a demanding physical job that requires travel, and with me living three hours away and taking care of young children, there was no way I could do it, either.
And so, the frantic search for another solution began.
The obvious one was to hire someone to come in and assist him several hours a week, which we had done in years past, when he could still walk the stairs in the house and drive. Unfortunately, in the current labor market, we had no luck finding anyone who would take such a limited gig. Home care agencies would only do it for a guaranteed minimum of 20 hours a week, which was way more than he needed and would dramatically increase the already alarming financial burn rate through his modest rabbinic pension.
As a massage therapist and personal trainer, respectively, my sister and I are also in no financial position to pay for his care. So, over the course of several weeks of difficult phone conversations and texts, we considered and fretted over our limited options. And, just as our dad had done guiding us through our lifecycle events and our lives, we found ourselves using words of Torah to chart a course for ourselves.
The two main biblical guide stars we followed were the fifth commandment — the injunction to honor our father — and the heartbreaking plea of Psalm 71, “Do not cast me away at the time of old age; when my strength fails, do not forsake me.” We read this psalm during the High Holy Days as we imagine God decreeing and sealing our fate and, in practical terms, this is what my sister and I felt we were doing with our dad. We held his fate in our hands, and we felt the weight of that responsibility.
The Life Alert we got him was something that he could hold in his own hands — or, at least, around his neck — but we knew that wasn’t enough. What if he fell and lost consciousness and couldn’t press it? We needed something that didn’t depend on him, that would allow us to check up on him whenever we wanted.
“What if we set up a nanny cam in his apartment?” I mused to my sister, before quickly adding: “With his permission, of course.”
The idea intrigued her, so we researched a bunch of cameras online, finding several that looked like they could fit the bill. All of them seemed pretty easy to set up and would give us the ability to log in through an app that would let us check up on him whenever we wanted. It seemed like a reasonable solution — a solid, temporary fix, at least — until I recalled the biblical injunction of Leviticus 18:7: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father.”
The first use of this phrase in the Torah refers to Noah’s son, Ham, uncovering his father’s Noah’s nakedness and, in doing so, earning his father’s curse that his descendants would be servants. (Disturbingly, interpretations of this text were used as a justification for the enslavement of African people.) Some scholars have interpreted the phrase to refer to having sex with one’s mother — the interpretation being that your father’s wife is your “father’s nakedness.” But we didn’t need to contemplate anything nearly that disgusting to come up with a far more plausible sexual situation, which I articulated to my sister as, “What if we catch him with Gladys from 3C?!”
Of course, the deeper issue had to do with balancing our father’s need for privacy with our need to ensure his safety. Ultimately — at least for now — we decided the former outweighed the latter. It’s a delicate balance and one we will likely have to constantly revisit, reevaluate and rejigger for the rest of his life.
For now, Dad is doing better. He knows which way to turn when he leaves his apartment to get where he needs to go, and he’s now familiar with where his bathroom is. Will he have to move to assisted living eventually? Probably. But for now he’s holding his own. And as far as we know, there is no Gladys from 3C — though, since this biblical passage helped convince us not to get the cameras, we may never know for certain. And that’s probably a good thing.