A growing aspect of my work with Jewish Sacred Aging – a forum for discussions on aging for Baby Boomers and their families – has been to work with congregations to develop responses on issues related to mental health. This issue, which spans across ages and impacts one in five American families, is of increasing concern to the growing population of aging Jewish adults.
An estimated 25% of the American Jewish community is now over the age of 65, and every living Baby Boomer is now at least 50 years old. The “longevity revolution,” as I call it, is now part of every congregation's challenge.
Jewish tradition has much to say about the issue of mental health. The account of David soothing a distressed King Saul by playing the harp is thought of, by some, as the first recorded instance of music therapy. Talmud Chagiga 3b discusses an actual diagnosis, based on observation of behaviors, of a shoteh, someone thought to be dealing with mental illness; later, Maimonides extended the definition to include individuals who have lost the capacity for rational thought and always seem to be confused in one particular area, though they may seem otherwise rational. Specific phrases from Jewish tradition even described conditions such as marah sh'chorah, a dark bile or bitterness – depression.
Concerns about dealing with older adults often focus on issues related to isolation and loneliness. When elders fall ill or lose their spouses, they can become removed from their social networks and find their lives suddenly devoid of meaningful social contact, which can lead to depression and thoughts of suicide. In addition to these mental health concerns, our congregations and clergy are increasingly confronted with questions of how to support, care for, and embrace individuals and families struggling with ailments such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Looking for a place to start? A growing cache of resources is available to support congregations in clergy in their efforts to address such challenges in their communities:
- The URJ and the Central Conference of American Rabbis have both adopted multiple resolutions regarding mental health issues.
- In April 2016, a URJ webinar titled "Judaism, Older Adults, Mental Health and Your Congregation" traced some of the tradition and highlighted specific congregational programs around issues of Jewish sacred aging. (Since then, Jewish communities in New Jersey and Missouri have hosted conferences on these issues.)
- Two books that address the topic of Jewish sacred aging in congregational communities are my Caring for the Soul: R'Fuat Hanefesh: A Mental Health Resource and Study Guide and Broken Fragments, a compilation of essays about Jewish approaches to Alzheimer's.
- Interdenominational resources include Pathways to Promise, Mental Health Ministries, NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and ClergyAgainstAlzheimer's.
For more information on this topic, visit the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center and watch Rabbi Address's webinar, "Judaism, Older Adults, Mental Health and Your Congregation."