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Wise aging

New group at JFS in Teaneck, like shul meetings, explore ways to grow older

Dr. Elaine Cohen, left, and Dr. Rochel David hold a copy of the book they’re using in their “Wise Aging” course.
Dr. Elaine Cohen, left, and Dr. Rochel David hold a copy of the book they’re using in their “Wise Aging” course.

By now, it’s commonly acknowledged wisdom that the baby boomers, that huge cohort of Americans born between 1946 and 1964, are not content to allow their lives to be lived according to commonly acknowledged wisdom.

From their childhoods, conducted in consonance with the dicta of Dr. Benjamin Spock, through their adolescences, where they grew their hair, smoked pot, fought against the war in Vietnam, turned on, tuned in, occasionally dropped out, and generally gave their parents conniptions, baby boomers were unwilling to accept commonly acknowledged wisdom. They had to figure things out for themselves.

It’s not surprising, then, that baby boomers are facing and changing the next great adventure to face them — the adventure that they once thought they’d never confront.

Aging.

Although this generation once determined never to trust anyone over 30, the whole cohort is getting older. (As is, of course, every single living being, but that’s a different story.) Many of them are facing the aging process with a kind of self-awareness and a willingness to use it as a spur to growth and reflection. And many of them, at least locally, are doing it with a Jewish twist.

Dr. Elaine Cohen and Dr. Rochel David, both of Teaneck, both members of Congregation Beth Sholom there, were shul friends — “kiddush friends,” as Dr. Cohen put it — fond of each other but with no particular history together, when Dr. Cohen read “Wise Aging: Living with Joy, Resilience, and Spirit” by Rabbi Rachel Cowan and Dr. Linda Thal.

Dr. Cohen, whose degree is in education, recently retired as head of the Schechter Network, and throughout the course of a long career has worked on educational policy for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and headed the Solomon Schechter Day School of Union and Essex. She discovered “Wise Aging,” and her many years of training as an educator told her that there was much to learn and much to teach in the book.

“Instead of focusing on all of the issues of decline in the later years, the orientation is to find opportunities for growing in relationships, and in self-awareness,” Dr. Cohen said.

The book not only offers people a way to shape their lives as they age to allow them to grow in wisdom, it also includes a blueprint for people to do that shaping in groups, Dr. Cohen said. The groups, which first began at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue about four years ago, offer “a chance for people to discuss and share and offer opportunities in a supportive environment.”

She decided that she would like to offer such a group, but she thought it would be far better to work in partnership with another facilitator. “I have a background in educational leadership and my doctorate is in counseling psychology,” she said. “I know less about mindfulness meditation. I’d never led it. And I also work better and smarter when I’m co-leading.”

Dr. David, whose children went to school at Schechter with Dr. Cohen’s, is a psychologist; she had an independent practice in Englewood until she retired at the beginning of 2015. She is also a yoga instructor. It seemed natural to Dr. Cohen that she ask Dr. David to join her.

Dr. David was intrigued with Dr. Cohen’s proposal, they established groups together, and during the course of their work together they have become good friends. In fact, their friendship models some of the course’s suggestions — that participants open themselves to new friendships and new ideas, as well as new challenges.

The groups themselves have a structured curriculum, based on the book; trainers are trained in retreats, where they “do their own work,” as Dr. Cohen put it, and learn how best to present it to others.

Beth Sholom has had two groups so far; participants have ranged from 62 to 87 years old. They’re small enough to encourage intimacy; one had eight members, and the other had 12. The oldest group members are old enough to be the younger members’ parents; their “lives have become more reduced and more isolated, but they have much wisdom to offer and got a lot back from the group,” Dr. Cohen said.

These are not therapy groups, both Dr. David and Dr. Cohen stressed. Instead, they are structured around a theme, and are meant to meet weekly for six weeks, although more often than not they continue to meet monthly once that agenda is completed. Sometimes, the group pushes through, in extra sessions, to such difficult-to-broach subjects as conscious dying, they said.

“In our society, people often encourage negative views of getting older,” Dr. Cohen said. Instead, in the groups, “we encourage people to think about their legacy and their stewardship,” Dr. David said. What does that mean? “It’s how you will be remembered,” she explained. “Stewardship is defined not as a specific goal, but your values and how you communicate them,” Dr. Cohen added. “It’s about being more mindful and more explicit about your values with your children, your grandchildren, and your friends.”

These wise aging groups teach life skills that are appropriate at any age. “We often are eager to fix things, to give suggestions and advice,” Dr. Cohen said. “Here, the focus is being an active, present listener, and to give people the space to express themselves.

“It might not sound like a big skill, but for very talkative people — and as Jews we tend to be talkative — it is a learned skill not to jump in, to be actively supportive just with your presence.”

Still, Dr. David added, “One of the overarching ideas here is that we often spend our lives doing. We are busy doing. When we age, we do a little less. That’s one of the reasons why these contemplative skills are so important. There is now more space for them.”

The groups begin with a mindfulness meditation, and then they discuss a Jewish text, often in pairs — chevruta — or in small groups. Next, they have a discussion. Some of the texts come from the book; the facilitators find others. “We look for texts that reach an emotion, and we also look for texts that have insight,” Dr. David said.

“Some of the issues are easier for people to delve into,” Dr. Cohen said. “We had a very moving experience, exploring issues about forgiveness and self-forgiveness. One week, one woman went home feeling very unsettled about an unfinished friendship. So she got in touch with that friend. No one told her to do that — no one directed her to do that — but because of the discussion she was able to do it.

“We have had some complex discussions about issues of faith,” she continued. “As they age, some people have a yearning for faith and belief. And others do not. It just does not speak to them. We have had some very interesting and deep conversations about it. People are in very different places, and we give them permission to explore it.”

“We also have had very interesting discussions about the idea of prayer,” Dr. David added. “We have talked about whether people find meaning in prayer, or whether it is just automatic. We talk about what they want prayer to be.”

There are wise aging groups around the country, the two women said; their trainers retreat included people from Kansas City, Chicago, Boston, and California. They think it’s likely that there are grassroots groups as well, formed outside the formal network to which they belong. It’s a movement, they say.

So far, their work has been in their own community, which makes for a very specific set of dynamics. Dr. Cohen and Dr. David are co-facilitators, but they’re also friends with the group members. Everybody knows everybody. That’s neither good nor bad, just an inescapable part of the situation.

Now, though, the two women plan to offer wise aging groups through the Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson in Teaneck. The first meeting, set for September 29, will be exploratory; it will give participants a chance to see if they’re willing to commit to six sessions, and allow the co-facilitators to make sure that the group can address participants’ interests. (See below for more information.)

These baby boomers are not trying to deny aging, Drs. Cohen and David said, nor are the movement’s founders.

“I went to Rachel Cowan’s birthday party,” Dr. Cohen said. “She turned 75. She said, ‘Don’t let anyone kid you that 75 is the new 55. It’s not. Seventy-five is 75. But it can be the new 75.’”

“Whatever we are, we can be in new ways,” Dr. David said.

“Many of us live in our heads a lot. This is about how to get out of your head, get in touch with what’s really driving you. Then maybe you have the opportunity to make a different choice.”


Who: Dr. Elaine Cohen and Dr. Rochel David will co-facilitate

What: The wise aging program, for men and women in their 60s, 70, and 80s.

Where: Offered by the Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson at its offices at 1485 Teaneck Road, Teaneck.

When: The first meeting will be on Wednesday, September 29, at 10:30 a.m., for 45 minutes.

Why: The first meeting will offer a taste of the program, which will meet for 90 minute once a week for six weeks.

For more information: Call (201) 837-9090, email jessicaf@jfsbergen.org, or go to www.jfsbergen.com

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