Window on the World is our weekly opportunity to look at the world from the Christian point of view. Ordinarily, I try to give a biblical response to a contemporary problem, but this week I have more questions than answers.
What should we do with Mother, or Father? Anyone who has ever cared for an agent parent can tell you that this is one of the most difficult questions a child ever has to face. For so many years, it was your parents’ responsibility to care for you. They helped and advised you; on occasion, they tried to tell you what to do. But the situation gradually changed, until finally it seemed like your roles were reversed. In some ways, you were parenting your parents, caring for them and making decisions on their behalf. That is not an easy adjustment to make—either for you or for them.
Some of the difficult decisions are financial, and involve a baffling encounter with hospital bills, insurance forms, and government papers. What is the best use of your parent’s limited resources? Who should decide how to use them? Other decisions are medical. How much should you tell Mother about her condition? What’s the best course of treatment? Should you get a second opinion? Then at the very end come the most difficult medical decisions of all, ones that involve equipment like artificial respirators.
Before that time comes, many of the most difficult decisions surround a parent’s living situation. At what point is Mother unable to live on her own any longer? And when she reaches the point when independence must be exchanged for dependence, where should she go? Suppose you bring her home to live with you. Are you prepared for the stress that this will cause you and any other members of your family? Or perhaps it would be better for Mother to live in a nursing home. But how well will she be cared for? Will her dignity be preserved, as well as her safety?
Meanwhile, as you struggle with these issues, your mother or father continues to grow ever older. You go through a grieving process as you witness the deterioration of physical and perhaps mental capacity. This process can go on for decades, and during the long good-bye, many children discover that they were better prepared for their parents to die than to keep on living. In some mysterious way, as your parent is prepared for eternity, God will sanctify your tears. But the Bible is right when it says that these years have “no pleasure in them” (Eccles. 12:1).
If those are the questions, then what are the answers? The Bible says relatively little about how to care for an aged parent. The basic principle is this: “Honor your father and your mother” (Exod. 20:12). That commandment lasts for a lifetime, but it is somewhat short on specifics. Furthermore, what it demands from a child changes according to the various stages of life. The nearer death seems to approach, the harder it is to know exactly what it means to honor your parents.
What is obvious is that God gives children the responsibility to care for their parents in old age. Remember, “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (Gal. 5:8). Yet far too many elderly people are left to fend for themselves. A doctor from this congregation commented, “One of the issues I see as I treat a large geriatric population is the lack of family involvement either as a result of ‘too busy’ family members, no family members nearby, or lack of family infrastructure.” The Bible’s answer to this problem is that Christian children should care for their parents.
This does not necessarily mean that children must care for their parents in their own homes. Sometimes there are compelling reasons for an aged parent to live somewhere else. Depending on the situation, nursing home or hospice care may be advisable or even necessary. However, a child’s first impulse should be to care for his parents as directly as possible. Far too many elderly Americans live in nursing homes as a matter of neglectful convenience.
If Mother does live in a nursing home, be sure to stay closely involved. Visit her as often as possible. Get to know the nursing home staff personally, visiting or making telephone calls at different times of the day. Ask friendly but probing questions about her care.
Remember also to rely on the help of your extended family, by which I mean the church. Whenever I visit a nursing home, I am reminded of the value of being a church member. Here at Tenth we make a regular practice of holding services at area nursing homes, but we attempt to take special care of our own members. Toward that end, we maintain a list of church members who live in nursing homes or are otherwise unable to leave their homes. Besides praying for them, we ask each parish council to care faithfully for the shut-ins in their part of the city. If your own parents are elderly, be sure to stay in touch with their local church family, which can provide friendship and spiritual care. Jesus himself set the example when he committed his mother Mary to the care of his friend John (John 19:25-27).
When it comes to difficult medical issues, one way to honor your parents is by telling them the truth. Admittedly, there are many occasions when the truth will not be welcome. Old age is a time of life when most of the news seems to be bad news, especially where the body is concerned. But you must be the one who faces up to the hard realities and cares enough to say what needs to be said. It is your responsibility as a Christian child to tell the truth and to find the most loving way to say it.
Perhaps you have not yet had to care for an aging parent. For some of us, these issues seem decades away. However, it is never too early to talk about them. Some medical decisions, especially, will be easier to make if you have discussed them in advance. It is often prudent for parents to give their children durable power-of-attorney for medical and financial matters.
If you are already struggling with these issues, I doubt whether these brief comments provide very much help. Your own situation will require fervent prayer and personal spiritual conference. But know this: Your efforts to take care of your parents are pleasing to God. And no matter how distressing and perplexing your situation becomes, he is sufficient, for his power is “made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9a).
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2021 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org