Institutionalizing Kindness: Have We Forgotten Our Own Homes?

By: Ailin Elyasi  |  November 16, 2017

I was at an initiation meeting for DOROT, a volunteer organization focused on helping the elderly, when I received a haunting call from my brother: “Adasjoon (my family’s sephardic name for grandmother) was admitted to the hospital last night. The doctors drained fluid out of her lungs. I guess that cough she had was worst than we thought. Do not worry; she’s completely fine, but she opted to stay a few more nights in the hospital.”

She opted  to stay a few more nights on the hard hospital bed? Why would she do that when she could instead sleep at home? Then came the daunting thought: she wanted to stay at the hospital. Doctors, nurses, other patients, and of course all her visiting family pay so much attention to her when she is at a medical facility. Since my grandfather died, she has lived alone. Although my family—especially my mother—talks to her, sees her, visits her, and invites her, it must be lonely to sleep in an apartment with no one at your side, to wake up with nowhere in particular to be, and to fill the days with arts and crafts when you once had the responsibility of raising six kids.

I believe that this exact worry began DOROT. The founders wanted to institutionalize and therefore regulate kindness to the elderly, enhancing our grandparents lives with human compassion, just as our grandparents have enhanced our lives. DOROT cares about older generations and their emotional wellbeing. It is a beautiful institution and a beautiful cause.

But what about my own grandmother? I was at a meeting to care for other people’s grandparents, when my own grandmother probably needed the most attention of all. I saw her on Shabbat, I took her to ice cream about a month ago, I call her about once every two weeks, but days are long. Longer than just a few a few activities every once in awhile—she needs more attention than that. Don’t we all?

A spoof of the attention that all grandparents need was featured on the Jewish Chronicle about an app developed by the American Friends of the Hebrew University (AFHU) called “Would it kill you to call?” In the video, a Jewish grandmother says she invented an app that checks how often a person calls his or her grandmother, and is programmed to send a reminder every two weeks. It rings true. Every grandmother wants a bit of appreciation for her years of helping her grandchildren grow. We need to give our grandparents that.

My family comes from a small town in Iran, where generations of families would live in the same house. My father lived a block away from his parents. The family ate  most meals together, and a family member always took care of the elderly. My poor grandmother must have experienced quite the culture shock moving to the United States. With all the institutional kindness that the US possesses, the culture has forgotten personal kindness. As her granddaughter volunteers to visit the homes of other elderly, there is no one visiting her. How many people volunteer for Yachad knowing a neighbor or family member who could use the attention? How many people volunteer for Project Sunshine knowing a friend or family member in the hospital? It all seems backwards to me.

DOROT is still a wonderful institution, and a worthy focus for any volunteer’s kindness. But I do not want to get so caught up worrying about other people’s elders that I forget about my own. I have decided not to participate in DOROT. Instead, I will volunteer that time to my own grandmother as the tradition in my family has been throughout generations. Non-for-profit kindness institutions are wonderful for ensuring that compassion and kindness exist in the world. However, before there were institutions, there were just kind people, investing their time into doing kind acts. Let’s bring kindness back home.