What should we do with our aged parents?
It’s a good question. And many of us will have to face it at some stage in the future. In fact several of our congregation are facing it at the moment. The once casual and carefree relationship we’ve enjoyed with our parents is coming to an end. They’ve grown old and they’re in poor health. And so as we once looked to them for help and support, the tables have turned. They’re looking to us. And it’s our turn to provide the help and support that they need. The matter is harder for some of us because we live in the city, and they live in the regions.
It’s not a situation for which many of us feel well equipped. If we’re honest we feel that this additional burden is going to restrict our independence. And we don’t like that. And even when we’re not being selfish, we’re troubled by how we can fulfil our responsibility to our parents when we struggle to fulfil our responsibility to our children.
The fifth commandment lays upon God’s people the responsibility to honour their parents. In Exodus 20:12 the Lord says, ‘Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you’.
John Calvin, in his exposition of the Ten Commandments in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, explained the concept of honour using three terms. In essence they were honour as reverence, honour as submission and honour as support. Let’s take those in turn.
1. Honour as reverence
Honouring our parents is first of all a matter of the heart. We honour our parents when we treat them with respect and reverence (Leviticus 19:3). And so the proper attitude of children to parents is one of deference. Even when we disagree we do so reluctantly and we express that disagreement in respectful language. There are times when a grown up child must take issue with his father’s words or actions. But even that admonition must at the same time express respect (1 Timothy 5:1). The motivation for treating our parents this way is our reverence for the Lord (Deuteronomy 5:16, Leviticus 19:32, Ephesians 6:1-3). In other words, Christian children should be especially marked by respect for our parents. So whatever we decide to do with our aged parents we need to ensure that we treat them with respect in the way we speak to them, the action we decide to take and the attitude that underpins our behaviour.
2. Honour as submission
Honouring our parents involves submitting to them. Submission is a broad term of which obedience is a part. We can express submission in other ways than by obedience, which means that there may be times when we can submit but nevertheless be disobedient. We demonstrate honour in submission in our general demeanour, in our respectful way of listening, our willingness to hear teaching or rebuke, our gentle manner when we encourage. In the case of young children the requirement to honour our parents and obey our parents is virtually synonymous. At least Paul thought so (Ephesians 6:1). But as a child grows and leaves home the requirement of the fifth commandment is no longer honour in terms of obedience but honour in terms of respect and support. What’s clear is that the requirement to honour our parents is never abrogated.
3. Honour as support
The words for ‘honour’ in both Hebrew and Greek carry the idea of financial support. And so Jesus was scathing in his criticism of the Pharisees who taught that it was fine to make a Corban gift to the Temple and leave parents languishing in poverty (Mark 7:9-13). Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 5:4-8 are especially pertinent
4 But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God. 5 She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day, 6 but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. 7 Command these things as well, so that they may be without reproach. 8 But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
Paul makes it clear that the welfare of our ageing relatives is first and foremost a family responsibility. It’s not the job of the state to look after our parents; it’s not even the local churches’ job. It’s ours. If we don’t provide care for our infirm parents then we’ve denied the faith and our behaviour brings discredit on the gospel. And so this much is clear; as Christian children, we need to do something. But what?
There are, broadly speaking, three options to consider wth regard to our parents. First, we could move them into our family home. We would perhaps need to sell their house, if they own it, in order to finance the larger property that we’d need to accommodate them. Secondly, we could provide home help so that they can enjoy a degree of independence in their own home or perhaps even sheltered accommodation. Thirdly, we could move them into a Care Home where they could receive the support that they need. What isn’t an option is dumping them on someone else and neglecting them in their time of need.
Here are some issue to bear in mind, gleaned from the writings of John Frame,
It’s not wrong for parents to live apart from their children. It’s normal. When sons get married they leave their parents and cleave to their wife. The formation of this new family unit is then expressed in terms of geographical separation. As long as they can do so, parents ought to live separately. There are, however, lots of advantages to having parents close at hand. My sisters have child care right on their doorstep! But many of us live some distance from our parents. We’ve moved into the city and we’ve left our parents in the regions. And that situation could continue as long as they remain in good health.
Even when parents are infirm we should value their independence. If it’s at all possible for our ageing parents to remain living independently, and they would prefer to do that, let’s try and make that happen. Obviously we’ll need to ensure that the help they might need is readily available. That may mean that they move closer to us, we move closer to them or we employ help in terms of placing them in sheltered housing. Whatever we decide we need to make sure that we remain interested in what’s happening and ready to step in as need arises.
Some medical needs require hospitalisation. There are some medical needs that are so serious that hospitalisation or supervised care is the only sensible option. Sometimes there are medical conditions that require constant monitoring. Occasionally this can be provided at home. My mother used to care for a friend on a Dialysis machine who preferred to stay in the village rather than move into a nursing home. But when it’s not possible, we need to do the wise thing and ensure that our parents receive the medical help that they need. We’ve not failed them if they’re so sick that they end up needing to be in hospital or in a nursing home.
The designation ‘Care Home’ can be an oxymoron. Periodically the media highlights the deplorable absence of care in badly managed nursing homes. Occasionally an undercover reporter gets a job on the staff and undertakes covert filming of the systematic abuse of the inmates. This is horrific and must mean therefore that we undertake rigorous and continuous assessment of the institutions into which we place our parents. Let’s choose wisely and hold the home to account.
Children should never abandon their parents. It’s not good enough to parcel out the responsibility for our parents’ care to a nursing home and think that we’ve done our bit. Even with the round the clock attention that’s provided they’ll need and want the emotional and spiritual support that we can provide.That will esepcially be the case if the home has a secular ethos.
This is not one of those straightforward decisions. We’ll need to be straight with ourselves, our siblings, our spouse, our children and our parents about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. But the real issue is pretty straightforward. It isn’t ‘what do we do with our aged parents?’ but ‘what do we do for our aged parents?’