June 2009

‘What should we do 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 us 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 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 the 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. It’s this third category that helps us most with this issue.

The words for ‘honour’ in both Hebrew and Greek carry the idea of financial support. 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. Consider verse 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’. So 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?

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 therefore, parents ought to live separately. Many of us live, not only separately, but also some distance from our parents. And that makes caring for them harder. And so we may decide that the right thing to do, when their health declines, is to move them into our family home.

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 that 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 are so serious that hospitalisation 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 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.

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 care that’s provided they’ll need and want the emotional and spiritual support that we alone can provide. We can’t dump them.

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?’

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