As the average age of the population gets older and older in the near future, it’s important to consider what kind of care and treatment these aging people will need. That’s why Breaking the Stigma, an annual discussion led by the Sinai Health System, decided to focus this year’s affair on memory and aging, with a focus on dementia.
The event, scheduled for June 3 at Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, is designed to open up the conversation in the Jewish community surrounding mental health. The moderator, Dr. Lesley Wiesenfeld, is the chief of psychiatry at Sinai and was a speaker in 2016 at the program’s first edition, which focused on depression and suicide in the Jewish community.
The other speakers this year from the medical profession are Dr. David Conn, a geriatric psychiatrist, Dr. Rhonda Feldman, who works in the caregiving program at Sinai, and Dr. Nathan Stall, a geriatrician. The supporting rabbis are Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl of Beth Tzedec and Rabbi Chaim Strauchler of Shaarei Shomayim Congregation.
Rabbi Frydman-Kohl said the topic of this year’s talk reflects the questions that many members of his congregation have been asking him.
“There are all kinds of issues that come up. ‘How long should somebody continue to drive? At what point and how do you discuss independence of decision-making? When somebody is older and has led their life as an independent person, how do you have a discussion about planning for dying? How do you have a discussion about short-term or other memory loss?’ These are really significant issues, and they’re going to be affecting more and more of us in the years to come,” he said.
Rabbi Frydman-Kohl added that as these are sensitive subjects concerning the eventual decline and death of a beloved family member, many people are reluctant to speak about them. And even the people who recognize the necessity in broaching the topic may struggle to actually do so.
“I’ve had discussions with people about ‘How do we open up a conversation with our parents about planning for death so that we know what they want, and we’re able to be responsive to that, without appearing that we want to get an inheritance?’ ” he said. “Older parents will sometimes say, ‘How do I have a discussion with my children about this? As soon as I bring up the idea that my time on earth is limited, they don’t want to hear about it.’ ”
That’s why Rabbi Frydman-Kohl says it’s important to hold and approve these conversations in public first, to allow people to carry on the conversations in their private lives.
Wiesenfeld agrees that it’s an opportunity to reduce the stigmas surrounding mental health in the community, and added that it’s also a chance to address the gaps in knowledge and the concerns of people who are suffering or whose loved ones are suffering from psychiatric illness.
For those who can’t attend the talk but are curious about the information that will be provided, Wiesenfeld has a few important messages to share. The first is that dementia is not only a memory disorder, but can affect people’s personalities as well – and that aspect can be the most challenging to deal with, for both the affected person and his or her family. The inhibition of daily functioning is another pressing concern. But Wiesenfeld wants people to know that help is available.
“Start by talking to (a) family doctor and saying, ‘I’m either worried about myself,’ or ‘I’m worried about my wife, my dad,’ and see what the family doctor can offer in terms of assessment to first kind of clarify whether there’s a diagnosis,” she said.
“There are growing resources for people in terms of respite care, in terms of having home-based care, in terms of day programs, and I think those are the kinds of things that are helpful for people to know about. I think sometimes people place a lot of emphasis on managing everything themselves, rather than realizing there are some services that are out there to at least provide some collaborative support for people who have dementia.”
For more information, visit BreakingTheStigmaJewishToronto.com.