I flew to Athens, Greece with the specific intention of visiting my 95 year old aunt (my mother's sister), Hara, who had been moved into an assisted living facility (in this case more of a nursing home). Fond memories of my early childhood are crammed with hugs, kisses, meals (because her food always tasted better to the 5-6 year old Albertiko) and sharing an L-shaped house with her, my uncle Avraam and their daughter, Anna (who is more like my sister rather than a cousin). I would spend four days, seeing her, each one, and return home for Shabbat.
The trip came off like clockwork (well, at least to this point which is me waiting at the Athens airport at 4AM for my 6:35 plane) except for a small hitch or three. It seems that the aging process is more predictable that I ever thought. Instead of visiting one aunt, I found another very dear aunt was in almost the same position (at approximately the same age). Her cousin (another aunt of mine in her late 70's) had just gone through serious surgery and was recuperating at home. Finally, the day I got there, one of my very close relatives got serious news from her doctor and will be going through surgery within a week or so. As I drove all over the Attiki peninsula visiting each of them (although I kept my personal pledge and saw Aunt Hara every day) it felt as if I should don whites and surgical gloves. Does everyone become ill in their later years? I guess if I had done my research I would probably find out that the answer is yes, for the most part.
I have numerous friends that enjoyed their winter years in places like Palm Springs and Jupiter, FL that played golf until shortly before they could no longer do so. They are surrounded by some of the best hospitals in the world and an entire economy based on their recreational and medical needs. Greeks live in one of the sunniest places in the world. Although winter is no picnic they do not tend to spend their dotage away from home. Islands and other countries are for visiting. One's home is where one lives out one's life. The difficulty of a culture in which almost everyone has a family home that is passed down to children or other relatives, whether a one room cottage in a village or a beautiful mansion in a swanky suburb, is that, when illness hits and brings special needs, one tries to stay in one's home as long as possible. This is true both for Greeks who can afford Western-world luxuries like part or full-time help. and for those of modest means. Moving into a nursing home is an enormous shock. Having family visit, bring flowers, a picture or two, is a balm to the soul.
This very necessary visit (in what is most definitely the ebbing of a specific era in my family's life) clearly demonstrated to me that "bikur cholim" can be therapeutic for both the giver and receiver; that one cannot take one's own health for granted; that a supportive family can be more therapeutic than doctor visits; that we must all go the extra mile to show respect and love toward the people that were the center of our lives in our formative years; and that a few roses can make your 95 year old aunt smile as when she was in the bloom of youth. Don't put it off if you can do it now.