Bikur Cholim Expectations

Q: Sometimes I think the expectations I have of my children are unrealistic. The younger generation seems to be quite self-absorbed, and trying to inculcate the value of basic mentschlichkeit has become an overwhelming job.

The mitzvah of bikur cholim is one that children learn in kindergarten — when Hashem Himself visited Avraham Avinu after his bris. Yet when it comes to the practical level of actually performing this mitzvah — in this case, visiting their grandmother in a nursing home — my children constantly avoid it.

I understand that it is difficult for them to see my mother in such a compromised state (she is at an intermediate-advanced stage of Alzheimer’s). She does sometimes exhibit irrational behavior, and it’s painful for all of us; but she definitely appreciates our visits.

One of my sons claims that his grandmother will forget that he came to visit her five minutes after he leaves, so why bother going? Another son says that he remembers his grandmother being very critical of him and he therefore has a hard time visiting her altogether.

My older daughters always claim that they are busy with one thing or another, and they almost never visit unless my husband and I go with them. (I don’t expect my younger children to go, because her behavior could possibly frighten them).

I remember learning that kibbud av va’eim also applies to grandparents. Am I mistaken? I don’t want to continually give them mussar, but I don’t know how to approach this issue in a constructive way. Any ideas?

A: It is true that the present generation of children is being brought up in a different society than their parents were. However, focusing on these differences can foster a sense of communal self-pity, which is not advantageous on any level.

Though it is difficult to see a close family member in such a compromised state, the mitzvah still remains.We pretend that we have some degree of control in our lives, but when we are confronted with an adult in such a position, we see the lack of control that we truly possess. The condition of advanced dementia reflects the epitome of lack of control and dignity, and it is frightening when we realize that any one of us couldbe in that situation.

When a person says that their pain in seeing this situation is too great, we need to look at Moshe Rabbeinu to see how one deals with such feelings. It is written in Shemos Rabbah (Parashas Shemos, sif chuf zayin), that Moshe cried when he saw the suffering of his brethren. And Seforno adds (Shemos 2, 11) that this feeling of brotherhood awakened him to help and take action and fight the Mitzri. The mussar haskil is that true concern is inevitably connected to concrete actions. Coercing children to visit, however, has its limitations; and it’s better to avoid “guilt trips” to motivate visits.

You can discuss what helps you to make the visit even though it is so hard for you. Sharing warm memories of your mother as you grew up can re-kindle warm memories that they, too, have. Your motivations can be in the area of taking away one-sixtieth of her illness when you visit. You can speak of how you more concretely conceptualize this mitzvah daily in davening, as part of your morning brachos. You can also speak of how you psychologically prepare yourself, before and after the visit.

Attempting to cause a person to be happy even for 10 minutes is worthwhile; that she might forget it soon after is not a reason to refrain from this effort. No one knows the length of one’s journey in this life, and all positivehuman encounters are eternal gifts. We all need to develop “muscles” of compassion, particularly in this difficult circumstance of visiting the extremely ill.

There is a reason why we ask mechilah from the niftar at the levayah. One area often mentioned when asking forgiveness is for not visiting the niftar often enough when the person was suffering from an illness. This reflects how this limitation in human behavior is universal, not only reflected in your children. May the Eibershter give us all the strength to do this mitzvah to the fullest.