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Monday, September 29, 2008

How We Live Is As Important As How Long

FROM RABBI RICHARD ADDRESS, UNION FOR REFORM JUDAISM: The end of the month of September brings an interesting confluence of major religious events. In the Islamic community, they observe the end of Ramadan, a month of introspection and focus on personal spiritual goals. Likewise, in my community, we greet a new year this evening. Rosh Hashanah calls us with the sound of the ram's horn (the shofar) to enter a 10-day period of reflection and transformation. There is much looking backward as we are called to take stock of the previous year.
This is a period of time in which we are given permission to change and create a new “self.” This may be a particular challenge for the exploding older adult population of our community. The aging of the baby boomers is changing how our society deals with aging and has sparked an increase in scientific studies on what it means to age and what may be essential components of “healthy aging.” This quest is not new; we have always harbored a desire to deny the inevitability of our own mortality. In mythologies of the past, we sought fountains of youth or made curious deals with supernatural powers to extend life. Now, in a curious marriage between science and religion, we have invested countless hours in the search for a modern magic bullet to try to unlock the secrets of life.
There are studies looking at the genetic links to aging in an attempt to one day restructure the genetic code that breaks down as we age. We could create an extensive bibliography of texts and studies that have emerged in the last decade that look at the links between lifestyle and positive aging. The MacArthur Study of Successful Aging of the 1990s showed us that how we choose to live may be of equal or more importance than how our genes are wired. The potential benefits of ongoing research into this new age of longevity are echoed in Robert Butler’s recently published book The Longevity Revolution, in which he writes that it “is also time for a nationwide private sector effort to mobilize the resources of the private nonprofit and corporate sectors as well as individual philanthropists to both support aging research and to push our government to continue and expand support of the NIH and NIA."
What so many of these studies have shown is that as important as pushing back the age barrier may be (and there is significant debate as to the value of expanding life spans), equal emphasis must be given to enhancing the quality of the life that is being lived now. Indeed, a key to that is social interaction, which is important for people no matter what their age, but especially as they grow older. Being with people, not being isolated and “alone,” can do much to enhance, extend, and add to one’s quality and quantity of life. This comes as no great scientific breakthrough. It is common sense. It speaks to the basic human need to be loved and to be needed and to count for something and to be with someone.
This is why, I think, Genesis instructs us that it is “not good” to be alone. The context of the verse introduces the need for Adam to be with another person, Eve. Yet, there is a deeper meaning than just companionship. I think the text is also reminding us that we cannot allow, as a family or a society, for people to be cut off from others, to live isolated, alone, unloved, and uncared for. One of our greatest challenges in the coming decades will be to ensure that our society does not allow people to age in isolation, to grow old in facilities that cut them off from social interaction and the basic need to be with people, to be needed, and to be loved.

Rabbi Richard Address, director of the Department of Jewish Family Concerns for the Union for Reform Judaism, will regularly share his work and thoughts on science, religion, and aging.