The Work of Remembering

The shivah for my sister Irene has now concluded. Sitting shivah in a time of isolation is frustrating. Therefore, I deeply appreciate the many people who reached out to me or my mother, my brother Michael, or Irene’s husband Irv Ash to express condolences or to make donations in her memory.

As an alternative to receiving guests, I read Irene’s two books, Treasured Legacies and Aging is Living. As I started to read, I reminded myself that, as a professor, writing books or articles was part of my job description, while writing was not part of Irene’s job description as a social worker. This led me to ask what percentage of the population writes books. The federal government’s Public Lending Rights program, which pays authors, reports that 17,000 authors receive payments. That constitutes only one twentieth of a percent (one person in two thousand) of Canada’s population of over 38 million. (US data are similar.) Irene was doing something very unusual, not because she was required to, but because she had things she wanted to say.

Treasured Legacies is a celebration of the lives of elders who have the good health and strength of spirit to continue leading lives that are, in Erik Erikson’s term, generative. The book wears its survivor bias with pride. Though some of the people Irene profiled continued formal employment, all were contributing to society. Some were well-known, others local heroes (like our uncle Bernard Ludwig, still practicing medicine into his eighties). It left me inspired and challenged me to consider how I will be contributing now that I have formally retired.

Aging is Living, coauthored with Irene’s husband Irv Ash, is much more emotionally demanding. Its profiles are of people who are in long-term care. Each story has as its turning point the realization that living independently was no longer possible, and that long-term care was necessary. After the turning point, Irene’s protagonists rely at least partially on the kindness of strangers to maintain activities that provide pleasure and meaning.

The book does not consist only of profiles. Irene draws 21 conclusions about how people can age well, despite the loss of autonomy. Here again I would refer to Erikson, who writes of late adulthood’s dichotomy of integrity versus despair. Consistent with the former is having love, connecting to a community, doing volunteer work, developing friendships with people of all ages, and having a sense of religiosity or spirituality. (If you want the complete list, I encourage you to get the book).

The book also contains a list of questions individuals and caregivers should ask when interviewing a long-term care facility and a set of observables (cleanliness of the residents, condition of the physical surroundings, quality of the meals) when making an assessment visit. The questionnaire and observables are also reasons to get the book.

When the Ontario Government does its internal review of Covid – 19 in long-term care homes, I wonder if poor performance on the observables will correlate with a high incidence of the pandemic. As an aside, I think it is deplorable that the Ford Government is conducting an internal review rather than establishing a public inquiry. I wonder if the internal review wasn’t chosen to hide the impact of the government’s budget cuts that led to a sharp reduction in inspections between 2018 and the present and to protect the owners of facilities, who might also be political donors.

Following the customs of Jewish mourning, I will continue to say Kaddish for Irene for a month. I am attending the online morning minyan at Temple Emanu-El of Toronto. I commend the efforts of Rabbi Deborah Landsberg and others in the congregation in mastering the technology and using it effectively.

It happened that Irene died on my birthday, June 7. I deeply regret Irene’s untimely passing regardless of the day it occurred. But, for the rest of my life, saying Kaddish for her will be the first thing I do on my birthday. I can accept that.

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