Of the Ten Commandments, honor one’s father and mother, kibud av va’em, is one of the most straightforward. In fact, we’re taught that honoring one’s own parents isn’t enough; we must honor all of the elderly: “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God.” (Leviticus 19:32) Of the many ways to honor our parents, one is to allow them to age with dignity, which often means helping them to continue living in their own homes. Often, that requires some form of in-home health care.
If honoring our parents and the elderly are among our fundamental Jewish values, then the people whose life work is taking care of the elderly should be among those we honor most. These caregivers help our parents who are losing their independence and ability to perform life’s everyday tasks — eating, bathing, and walking. Most of us know that a trusted caregiver can make an enormous difference — both to the person receiving care and to his or her family. Yet the vital service and support provided by caregivers has for years been undervalued. Falling outside the jurisdiction of the labor laws that protect most Americans, too many caregivers — mainly women of color — find themselves in oppressive and sometimes even dangerous work environments, and too many are exempt from the national labor standards that protect other workers: minimum wage, sick days, overtime, and protection from exploitive hours and unsafe working conditions. In December 2011, the U.S. Labor Department introduced proposed rule changes to help correct this loophole in American law. Now, we have an opportunity to get involved.
When we become consumers of care as employers, directly or indirectly through an agency, we must ensure that we provide for our employees. Are we paying a living wage? Are the benefits fair? Are the place and hours of work just? Jewish texts ground us again: “You shall not oppress a needy or destitute laborer… You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends upon it.” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15)
Meeting our core Jewish obligations is a growing challenge for the Jewish community, its institutions, and our nation. America’s 77 million baby boomers, 1.4 million of whom are Jewish, are poised to retire. Of retirees, the fastest growing subgroup consists of those 85 years old and older. Not surprisingly, issues of eldercare, aging with dignity, and aging in place are becoming increasingly pressing in the Jewish community as individuals face complicated health care choices: skyrocketing costs of home care, especially when services and benefits lean toward institution-based care; facing the emotional strains of navigating a complex system; and finding quality care when family members are geographically distant.
What will we do if honoring our parents means helping them to age at home and paying out of pocket (rather than through Medicare) to get the care they need? What happens if the costs are beyond the family’s means?
These are tough questions our community must begin to address. Jewish values and teachings provide us direction but they only underscore the daunting choices and challenges we face as our parents and loved ones age, and as we struggle to make sure that they and their caregivers have the dignity they deserve. With our families and country facing an epic retirement of baby boomers, and with caregivers facing increasing demands with few if any protections, we should begin to seek solutions now. Working to secure rights for care workers acknowledges that the fate of our loved ones and the fate of those who care for them are intertwined.