- K’hillot M’khabdot:A Response to the Baby Boom Generation through a Reclamation of the Mitzvah of Kibbud Av Va-eim*
What we owe the old is reverence, but all they ask for is consideration, attention, and not to be discarded or forgotten. … A revision of attitudes and conceptions is necessary. Old age is not a defeat but a victory, not a punishment but a privilege. … The test of a people is how it behaves toward the old. It is easy to love children. Even tyrants and dictators make a point of being fond of children. But the affection and care of the old, the incurable, the helpless are the true gold mines of a culture.—Abraham Joshua Heschel1
With the first baby boomers recently reaching the age of sixty-five,2 numerous questions arise about America’s ability to accommodate the needs of such a large number of senior citizens. There are tremendous concerns [End Page 53] about the efficacy and sustainability of the health care system and about the financial and societal burden that will need to be shouldered by younger generations. When the last of the 78 million baby boomers reach their sixty-fifth birthday in 2030, the number of adults aged sixty-five and older in the United States will almost double.3 While speculation about inadequate resources to support the baby boom generation are well-founded and merit attention from local and national political leadership, the outlook need not be so bleak. America must begin a substantial transition from which it could emerge much stronger. The potential for growth will be realized when America readjusts the lens through which it views senior citizens. America would greatly benefit from a shift in focus from baby boomers’ needs to their potential contributions. The baby boomers represent the largest, best educated, and wealthiest generation to reach retirement; with this they bring an air of entitlement. Joseph Coughlin, an age researcher and baby boomer, states: “We will not be like our parents or grandparents. If we are tired or suffer from a little bit of pain, that’s not what we’re going to accept as a natural part of aging. We’re going to have a higher set of expectations. And the expectations are going to be driven by our aspirations and our money to be able to go after what we want.”4 The baby boomers’ demand for better care, coupled with their purchasing power, will help drive the health care industry to innovate and cater to their needs. Harvard professor David Cutler explains: “Baby Boomers will soon discover how haphazard the U.S. health care system really is when they need it, from coordinating care, to seeing different specialists to obtaining drugs. … They’re already finding that with their parents and they won’t put up with it for themselves. They have the money and the voice to effect change.”5 Thus, it is important to remember that although this new generation of senior citizens has unprecedented needs, it also has the capacity for unprecedented contributions to the transformation and growth of America and its institutions. [End Page 54]
While America currently views its seniors as a massive group demanding much and contributing little to the productivity of society, the inherited traditions of Judaism can encourage a re-envisioning of the role of older adults in American Jewish life. The rapid aging of America is pronounced among American Jewry. A 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center finds that 51 percent of Jewish adults are ages fifty and older, compared with 44 percent of adults in the general population.6 A study of Jewish congregations in Westchester, New York, found that “[s]ynagogue members’ average age is 56, and … synagogue membership is largely dominated by the Baby Boomers.”7 Jewish values mandate that younger generations care for the needs of the elderly in a dignified way, that the elderly receive honor, and that the elderly hold important positions in the society through which their contributions are recognized and valued. The decision to act on these values will revive Jewish communities and institutions across America, and the American Jewish community will...