A great number of elderly people reside in care facilities or at home with 24-hour paid help. While they are physically cared for, their spiritual needs may be harder to meet.

My experience working in a kosher nursing facility provided insight for me, and it’s something that might work for others. I learned how important it is to educate caregivers about our Jewish practices. By teaching the nursing assistants about Judaism as it related to their job, they felt appreciated and empowered, which in turn resulted in a higher level of personal, as well as religious care for our patients.

My job in the nursing home was to provide Jewish cultural programming. In the course of my day, I met many of the residents’ family members. One year, after the holiday of Shavuot, several family members told me that they had been upset at the low number of patients who attended religious services and the inappropriately casual appearance of those who were there. Since the nursing assistants help dress patients and transport them to activities, I realized that they had probably never even heard of this holiday before and certainly had no idea of its importance. Some education was needed.

While my boss was of the opinion that trying to teach nursing assistants was not necessary or possible, the Jewish owner of the home thought it was a good idea. I decided to give the classes on my own time.

Most of the nursing assistants were Haitians or refugees from the violence then occurring in Central America and did not speak English. But most people want to do a good job, regardless of any language barrier. So before Rosh Hashanah, I set up times with the director of nursing when I could speak to the shift workers. I also spoke with the head of food service, who assured me that on Rosh Hashanah, everyone who ate solid food would receive apple slices and packets of honey.

I posted notices in English, Haitian-Creole and Spanish by the employees’ lockers. All employees were invited; at both sessions, the room turned out to be packed with nursing assistants, nurses and janitorial staff. Bilingual employees translated my 15-minute talk and the questions that followed into Haitian-Creole and Spanish.

I explained the traditions and significance of the holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. I talked about repentance and forgiveness of the first two holidays, and joy on the third, as well as that blessings for all the nations of the world were made in the Temple during Sukkot.

I then discussed the custom that would be most difficult for them: offering apple slices with honey to patients who could not feed themselves. The honey would make this a messy job, so they might be tempted to skip it. However, I explained, even people whose memories are gone might, at some place deep inside, respond to the crunch of apples and the sweet taste of honey, and that this might be their only—and perhaps, last—religious experience.

The room was silent. As I looked around the room, I realized that many of the men and women wore Christian symbols. They were deeply religious themselves. I thought they might understand, and apparently, they did.

After the holidays, I was told that an unprecedented number of patients—all decked out in their holiday clothing—attended services. Even women with unsteady hands wore tastefully applied makeup, clearly put on by someone else. And most surprising, the nursing assistants seemed to be in a holiday mood in spite of the extra work involved.

Before Chanukah, I gave a similar talk. The last question was from a woman who had hesitated to raise her hand. With a lot of encouragement, she finally asked her question.

“I heard that Jews have a lot of blessings,” she said. I nodded. “I heard that you even have a blessing for when people go to the toilet?”

Everyone tittered.

“Yes,” I explained. “You, among all people, must know how miraculous it is when all of a person’s tubes and ducts open and shut properly because you have to take care of patients who have no control, or who have diseases that prevent the normal opening and closing of these tubes and ducts.”

The packed room was absolutely silent. Those in the room, whose work shifts were filled with diaper and bed-linen changes—not to mention walking shuffling old people to the bathroom—understood this more than most. This blessing means that Jews, as a people, acknowledge the importance of these unpleasant tasks. By making a blessing for these functions, we also indirectly bless those who handle them when we cannot take care of them ourselves.

By the simple act of taking the time to include the nursing assistants in the culture of the residents, I showed that the work they did was important, appreciated and valued.

These lessons meant more than a simple thank you, because I shared my own time and opened a window on my own spiritual life. In turn, the care staff came to appreciate Judaism and the place of religion—so important in their own lives—in the lives of our residents. This gave their work a totally new and unexpected dimension, as shown when one woman told me that she had hated to clean up after incontinent patients, but after I explained the Asher Yatzar blessing (said after bodily elimination), she felt she was doing holy work and was sure her care reflected this change in attitude.

As I thought about honoring my own mother, I remembered these experiences. I made sure that any questions my mother’s caregiver had about Shabbat or holiday observances were answered and that she understood how to ensure that my mother’s religious life continued within the narrow confines of her life. Her caregiver made sure that Friday night dinner was special, and she helped my mother light her Shabbat candles every week.

Teaching nursing assistants or a full-time caregiver about holidays so that they can help their patients is one way of honoring our parents. It takes a little time and the ability to open yourself, but it pays huge dividends in the type and quality of care your parents (and others) will get.

I would also encourage you to approach the management of kosher-care facilities who have a large number of Jewish residents and offer to speak to the caregivers, and not just to the residents. The rewards are great for you, and the rewards for the elderly are huge.

This week—when the Ten Commandments (including the commandment to honor our parents) are read in synagogue—would be a great time to start.