Challenges of Caring for Our Elderly Parents

By Chana Sanders

I spent a very interesting Shabbos in a local hospital where my mother was admitted a few hours before candlelighting a few Fridays ago. Since my mother, who is elderly and very ill is not frum, this was a BT experience every step of the way. Yet, it was Shabbos, and the hospital does provide a Shabbos room for overnight guests despite their 99% non-religious or non-Jewish clientele and staff.

So I stayed overnight and tried to take care of my mother, whose thoughts were (rightfully) not on whether I was having Shabbos issues. But every step of the way, from elevators, to electric hospital beds, to straws and silverware in sealed plastic, there were challenges. I know that my Rav can answer all these halachic questions, but there wasn’t time to anticipate them all before this happened.

It is probably easier if the parent is frum, even if they are very ill, because it would come naturally to the parent not to request the child to be mechalel Shabbos. But with a non-frum parent I was in constant anguish over trying to comfort her and give Kavod and at the same time diminish the amount of Shabbos violation. Also, I had to try to balance how many requests I made of the staff in order to keep them agreeable. Somehow it was hard to imagine asking them to open a sealed package that I could obviously open myself, when I was already asking them for many other things I couldn’t do myself (bedpan, changing position, pain medication, etc.)

Of course I know the answer is in learning the halachas of taking care of sick people on Shabbos, but sometimes as a BT there is so much catch up learning that you don’t realize what you should have learned before it is too late.

11 comments on “Challenges of Caring for Our Elderly Parents

  1. Kressel – I understand that but it is not a bad idea for you and your husband, you should both be well and live long, to do them for yourselves.

  2. The problem is not in accessing the documents. It’s convincing my parents that signing them is worthwhile.

  3. I have extreme HaKaros HaTov to Rav Neuworth, as I spent much time learning the laws of Shabbos from that book when we started out many years ago.

    The new must-have Shabbos Halacha sefer is the 4 volume English/Hebrew footnoted “The 39 Melachos” by Rabbi Dovid Ribiat.

  4. Recognizing that a qualified Rav needs to be consulted because no two situations are totally alike, I think a how-to pamphlet or book covering common scenarios like this would be valuable. If a particular situation wasn’t addressed, at least the reader would have enough background to know what to look for and what questions to ask. While Rav Neuwirth’s book Shemirath Shabbath (several volumes in English, published by Feldheim) is very instructive, it’s not so easy to search out the portions relevant to this topic while under extreme stress and time pressure. Plus, a monograph could provide more illustrations of what can happen and what to do, including even “troubleshooting charts”.

  5. my mother was in a terrible auto accident several years ago in Ocala FL. I flew down immediately and took a hotel room across the street for shabbos – had the whole thing jerry rigged – the electric door with electricians tape, room light off, bathroom light on – sat in the hospital waiting for my mother to come out of a coma – the hospital folks saw me sitting in my kapote and tzitzis and beard and thought I was the local messianic rabbi!
    went back to my hotel with a couple of cousins I hadnt seen in years – by the time they left, the room lite was on & the bathroom light off – gevalt
    seriously – Yakov is correct and even the mishneh b’rurah quotes that famous yerushalmi about the rabbi being derelict in teaching hilchos shabbos so that time is not lost in making halachic inquiries at critical times – like it says in pirkei avos “make t’shuva the day before you’re going to die” well how do I know when I’ll die? AHA! dust off those mishneh brurahs and start reviewing – or there are several good shabbos books such as Shemiras shabbos K’hilchasa by Rav Neuworth which is translated into English (It’s worth mastering Hebrew just to experience the dialog of nearly four decades between the author and his rebbe, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach which comprises the footnotes to the original)
    Don’t forget to daven hard that should we ever be in those situations, R”L we’ll have “siyata d’shmaya” – divine assistance in doing the right thing

  6. It is certainly a difficult decision when faced with the pressure to sign a DNR. I personally know of at least 2 situations where the family members were pressured to do so and refused only to have their loved ones revived and returned to their pre-illness health.

    If you wish to avoid bring pur in that situation yourself, chas vashalom, read the information on Halachic Living Wills and Health Proxies here: there are forms as well.

  7. Kressel: The life support issue is very difficult as is the DNR issue. Medical care facilities (and insurance companies) push DNR and it seems that many people (not frum) are convinced that a “poor quality of life” is already equivalent to death, so why not “relieve the suffering”. B”H, Judaism is much more careful with it’s definition of “value of life”, but a BT sometimes has to make that switch of thought process.
    I have unfortunately been in a few situations where this decision has been in my lap. First, when my father A”H was hospitalized shortly before he was nifter, the hospital, and my non-frum family were very annoyed that I kept refusing to agree to sign the DNR, upon the advice of my Rav at that time. Then later my mother, who is B”H very resilient, was in a very bad way after a stroke, and the facility she was in was pressuring for a DNR. At that time my Rav actually permitted it due to unusual circumstances. But I later spoke to other Rabbaim who reinforced the opinion of my first Rav, that it was never justified. Most literature about the subject written by religious Jews takes this position as well.
    You are right, we should daven for Hashem to spare us of this test.

  8. Here’s a suggestion that I hope someone will run with: Someone should write a paper on “halachos of sticky situations” that is downloadable on a Palm Pilot. Of course, a conversation with a Rav is best, but if you’re stuck…

  9. Not that this remark makes the situation any easier practically speaking, but perhaps a little encouragement is also helpful…

    “I was in constant anguish over trying to comfort her and give Kavod and at the same time diminish the amount of Shabbos violation.” While we should never have to endure such situtations, it sure sounds like you were concerned about all the right things.

    Because situations like this are harder for baalei teshuva, there’s got to be more reward. More reward is a simple way of saying more personal growth.

    All you can really do when you don’t know under those circumstances is do the best you can do. When time allows, ask about it for the future.

  10. My father is ill and elderly, too. But keeping Shabbos in a hospital is difficult but possible. What about questions of life support, chas v’shalom? I know a new BT whose mother will probably be cremated and the daughter has absolutely no say in the matter. Please Hashem, please don’t ever test any Yid this way.

  11. Tough questions. You definitely have to get clarity from a Rav. There’s an important general rule in Hilchos Shabbos, though, that is so important the Mishnah Berurah says that if a Rav doesn’t openly publicize it he is guilty of a terrible transgression: If there is any doubt that a person’s life is in danger — any doubt — don’t think twice about Shabbos violations. Do everything you have to do and ask questions later.

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