Gellman: Let's Thank Those Who Care for Our Aging Parents

My mom and dad, Sol and Rosalie Gellman, are living in the kind of place that used to be called an old-age home. The place, in Milwaukee, is called Chai Point. Chai is the Hebrew word for life. I have no idea why they call it Chai Point, since it is on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. Maybe "Chai Bluff" was already copyrighted. I guess it's a better name than some others—Chai Brooke or Chai Woodlands or Chaiville, say. My preference would have been Chai-howyadoin, but nobody asked me. Chai Point is 10 years old this month and it is a reflection of the very best instincts of Milwaukee's Jewish community. It is open to old people of every religion and no religion. (I think you must be a Green Bay Packers fan to get in, but this is just because Chai Point is not equipped to protect Chicago Bears fans.) Chai Point is a modern facility incorporating independent living, assisted living, acute care and the Bader Center, which is the Alzheimer's wing where we moved dad a couple of weeks ago.

I want to thank the staff of Chai Point for helping to give my mother and my father a life I could not provide for them, even if they were in my home. In my home I could not take my mom and dad to the exercise pool. I could not plan a daily luncheon for them with other elderly friends and acquaintances. I could not bring in musicians and experts to lead discussion groups so that their souls and their minds would not atrophy. I could not send a van every day to take them to Sendick's to buy fresh fruit and vegetables to cook with. I could not hire a social worker to manage their needs and steer them through the bureaucracy of aging in America. I could not staff and equip a wing of my house to care for my father's deep dementia while giving my mother a chance to visit her great-grandchildren in California and New York. And I could not set up a glass aviary filled with finches so that my mom and dad could hear bird songs even in the winter of their lives.

So, thank you to the staff of Chai Point, and God bless all of you who do these things for my parents and who have for a decade been doing the same for the parents of other grown children. I also want to thank and bless the staffs of all the other assisted-living centers all over America. We, the children and grandchildren of the people you just washed and fed and smiled at—we owe you our lives, and we owe you the lives of our parents.

To all the families who have put their parents and grandparents in such places, I pray that we might try to let go of our guilt. Perhaps some of us are simply warehousing our inconvenient ancestors, but I have not seen too much of that. The truth is that growing old in America today is much too complex to allow for such misplaced self-pity. We are, sadly, not living in the old neighborhoods. We are not surrounded by large extended families who gather every Sunday to play cards and eat traditional greasy food while sharing the burden of care for our old ones. We need places like Chai Point now. We cannot give them what they gave to their parents, and our own lives would neither protect nor nurture them. We are not putting them in homes to soothe our guilt. We are enabling our parents to knit together a new life with others their age who remember things we do not know. This Passover my mom made gefilte fish for a lonely woman down the hall. This was not a little thing. Chai Point is not a building. It is a society of human beings who happen to be old and who have chosen to be old together.

Could things be better? Yes, they could. Too many old ones in our country have no Chai Point and cannot hear the finches in the aviary. But the big things about growing old cannot really be fixed until the Messiah comes, or, as my priest friend Tommy says, until the Messiah comes again.

God bless you, Chai Point, and your old ones and your finches.