Shifting the paradigm to put your aging loved one at the center of the seder

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As Passover approaches, I often get asked how families can best accommodate an aging loved one at the seder table. I’ve learned to read between the lines; different people mean different things when they ask. As owner and president of Right at Home of Rhode Island, an in-home senior care agency, I get to see a lot of different family dynamics. In some families, elders are treated like a modern day Moses – revered and honored, even if tongue-tied. Or a Miriam – acknowledged as a well of wisdom and inspiration, even if slightly bitter occasionally. In other families, as grandparents begin to fade, they somehow get unintentionally pushed to the perimeter, becoming an afterthought – or worse – a burden. 

During this time, I try to encourage families to shift their thinking to be less about accommodation – and more about building the seder around our elders. The families who succeed at putting aging loved ones at the center in an intentional way – literally, giving them a seat at the table – create more meaningful memories – for everyone involved. 

And on this holiday that centers around learning from the past to teach the next generation, it feels like the right time to set an example for where you hope your kids put your chair one day.

All it takes is some planning and a few small tweaks your usual routine.

Here are five tips for ensuring the family elders are at the center of your seder this year:

Location, location location: Putting bubbe at the head or center of the table is essential to her inclusion. Also, flank her with the babies and toddlers if you’ve got ‘em. Nothing will give her more nachas than a front row seat to the Four Questions, or to them gobbling down matzoh balls.

Timing is everything: If your observance level allows you to be flexible on seder start time, try to hold the seder when your loved one is still feeling strong and vibrant. Sometimes the elderly begin to fade after sunset. In April, the sun goes down around 7:15, so work backward, calculating inevitable guest lateness and going off-script from the Haggadah, as well as travel time home.  

Staff: And we’re not talking about the one Moses used to strike that rock. Depending on Zayde’s need level, you might consider hiring a companion or caregiver with a reputable agency to accompany him to the seder. That way, you can enjoy his company rather than worrying about meeting his physical needs. A caregiver can provide transportation to and from the seder, help with tricky stairs or entryways, in and out of cars, and attend to personal care needs that may arise. Make this booking well in advance. Demand for those two nights is higher than you think.

Ask more than just the four questions: Direct the conversation to her by asking about her lifetime of seders: Who used to be at your seder table when you were little? What did your mother serve? Did you have any special family rituals? What did you do to help your family clean out the chometz? Did you really have a carp in your bathtub? How did you bathe then?!

Menu plan for nostalgia: Make an old favorite recipe, and if possible, allow time earlier in the week for aging loved ones to help you prepare it. “Food memories are more sensory than other memories in that they involve really all five senses, so when you’re that thoroughly engaged with the stimulus it has a more powerful effect,” explains Susan Whitborne, professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts, in a recent Huffington Post article. As Jews, we put enormous significance on our food, gleaning deep satisfaction from the act of nourishing the next generation. Observing one’s food legacy will strike a powerful chord. 

And with luck, this year’s “accommodation” will turn into next year’s beloved tradition. 

Naomi Fink Cotrone is president of Right at Home of Rhode Island, an agency that provides care to elderly and disabled adults throughout Rhode Island. She will be spending the seders with her family, making sure to sit between her adopted grandmother and her matzoh ball-gobbling nieces and nephews.