I recently came across a sentence that was recited regularly in the Jewish towns of Eastern Europe where my father and, I imagine, many of your own parents and grandparents were born. It seems that whenever a family or a couple lost their home, the shtetl would be responsible for building them a new one. After the house was built but before it was moved into, the town would gather, often early in the morning, and utter the following words. More than an aphorism but less than a prayer, it went something like this: "May we live on our own, and may we live together — but never one without the other."
The year that I was born, an American could expect to live to 5′. In a population of over 100 million, there were fewer than 100,000 people older than 75. Just one-10th of one percent. Today there are 300 million Americans, and ‘0 million of them are older than 75. The U.S. population has tripled, but the population over 75 has multiplied by ’00. That’s a seismic change over a single lifetime, with a magnitude of consequences that may be unsurpassed in this century.
Those consequences, however, have been tricky to predict. The year I was born, almost everyone over 75 lived with an adult child or grandchild. Who would have imagined that the figure today is just one in 10? When my own father died, at the age of 79, he lived with my sister. He and I had started a business together just after the war, about a dozen years before, and it was a rare week when I didn’t see him at least five days. I was 41 when he died; I was a grown man with a business, two sons, and a third on the way. And when my father died, it was as if the roof had come off my house. I finally felt exposed to the sky and everything that falls from it. Families operate differently nowadays. I don’t know if it’s progress, but it’s undeniable and irreversible. This is the way we live today: on the move and on our own.
Of course, the problem with the way we live is that complete independence becomes harder to sustain, no matter who you are. Let me mention one statistic to illustrate the point. Fifteen percent of all Americans over 75 — about one in seven — have a condition called macular degeneration that damages the central part of the retina and inevitably causes a significant loss of vision. I could cite a dozen more examples, but many people already know them for themselves. It’s true, it’s wonderful, that more of us are living longer and in better health, but none of us gets older without the increasing need for a helping hand. None of us.
We’re all playing catch-up with this new reality. If you log onto your computer and google the phrase "assisted living" and the word "first," you find countless Websites for assisted living homes that boast of being the first in their counties or the first in their states. All of them are less than 10 years old, and most of them less than five. We are at the birth of an important movement — a movement born out of necessity and nurtured by the novel idea that a helping hand can extend independence rather than diminish it.
We’re pioneers, those of us involved in the Jewish Home for Assisted Living. We should all be proud of that fact. The task before us now is to carry out our mission well: with knowledge of the people we’re serving, with respect for their dignity and their pride, and with the understanding that we’re here to enhance their independence and to enrich their lives. Our challenge is to do these many things better than they’ve ever been done before: with imagination, with a sense of fun, with generosity, with tenderness, and, above all else, with love.
This article is adapted from a speech Bill Kaplen gave at Sunday’s dedication of the new Jewish Home Assisted Living Kaplen Family Senior Residence in River Vale. See also page 15.