Caring for Aging Parents: A Biblical Perspective

Caring for Aging Parents: A Biblical Perspective

Caring for Aging Parents: A Biblical Perspective

Dear New Hope,

I still remember the uncomfortable tension at Grandma Trierweiler’s house as she battled through the final stages of dementia. I was a young adult in college, and it was the first time I had witnessed the significant health decline of a family member and the impact it had on the family unit. Anyone who has experienced the life-altering challenges of caring for aging parents, especially the elderly with memory loss, knows the rapid change of emotions, from impatience to sorrow to exhaustion to anger. Instead of placing Grandma in an assisted living home, my parents relocated and moved into Grandma’s old farmhouse to provide around-the-clock supervision and support. This aging German woman who once baked homemade bread, plucked chickens, swept out the barn, whipped her 10 children into shape, and changed catheters on her disabled son now stared into the room with a confused look. She was unable to form thoughts, put sentences together, or identify family members. She would leave the burner on, put the milk away in the cupboard, and, at times, not know how to pull her pants down to use the restroom. There were brief moments when the sparkle in her eyes would return for a moment of clarity, but for the most part, Grandma Trierweiler was completely dependent on others for survival.

Ask anyone who has provided care for aging parents and they will quickly identify a number of issues that caretakers face. They often make extraordinary sacrifices to care for parents. Their life is completely altered. Their time is no longer their own. Their schedule is put on hold. Vacations become impossible. Even simple tasks like shopping or going out to dinner become a huge challenge. Just as a newborn infant requires time, attention, and supervision, often, when an aging parent reaches the end of life, they need the same oversight that a toddler would require. Caretakers know this all too well: Everything in life begins to revolve around mom or dad.

Caretakers also experience painful challenges to their own human heart. One man talked about the extraordinary patience required to care for his elderly mom. When an aging parent asks the same question multiple times a day, is confused by the simplest of tasks, or can no longer recognize faces of family members, patience can run very thin in the home. Some caretakers respond with anger. Others with frustration. Afterward, a wave of guilt will crash over the caretaker as they feel convicted about treating mom or dad with such insensitivity.

Additionally, there is the inevitable tension that rises among siblings over “who-should-do-what” and “who-should-pay-for-what” and “who-should-do-more.” As parents age and require support, it is common for arguments to occur among siblings over time management, medical expenses, liquidation of assets, or the dreaded conversation over long-term care. Glenn Ruffenach, in a Wall Street Journal report called “The Hard Job of When to Stop an Older Driver,” writes about how painful it was to revoke his mom’s driver’s license. He admitted that doing so “was devastating for her and for us.” None of these decisions, whether on health care or driving, are easy to decide and they often tear at the fabric of family unity.

Occasionally, adult children resort to “helicoptering” and watch their parents’ every move, making them feel like prisoners in their own home. In a fascinating article called “Aging Parents Resist Helicopter Children,” Clare Ansberry gave practical advice for adult children who wrestle with making decisions for their parents. Ansberry suggests that adult children need to pick their battles carefully when helping parents and ask “whether they are intervening for their parents’ well-being or to alleviate their own worries.” In other words, just because an aging parent may be stubborn about wearing hearing aids or take much longer to do simple chores, does not mean they are incompetent. If personal safety is at stake, of course, adult children need to exercise care and wisdom. But not every aging parent is in need of constant supervision. Quoting a Harvard psychologist, Ansberry writes, “If a parent fumbles with the key when trying to unlock a door, kids should be patient and wait, rather than grabbing the key and taking over. While you may be trying to be helpful, the message, deliberate or not, is that you are competent and the parent isn’t.” Patience, my friend. This is one of the keys to caring for the elderly.

Who should provide care for aging parents?

This is the big social conundrum. Some people put their parents in an assisted living facility, which puts a strain on their parents’ resources or creates a financial burden upon surviving children. The Wall Street Journal recently posted an article titled “U.S. is Running Out of Caregivers.” Quoting statistics such as “every day, 10,000 people turn 65” and by the year 2020 “there will be 56 million people 65 and older,” this article called attention to what they labeled as a “caregiving crunch” which is happening in our country. Whereas in the past, many families would provide care for their own family members, people are now resorting to long-term care professionals. And yet, some believe it is never appropriate to “put mom or dad in a home.” I am not claiming Holy Spirit inspiration but I do believe that care facilities can provide excellent support, especially in cases where the medical needs and supervision of the elderly far exceed the capacity of adult children. Adult children making that decision must remember not to abandon their elderly to social isolation. In an article called “The High Health Cost of Social Isolation – and How to Cure it,” David Blumenthal writes about how many elderly are living in social isolation, “substantially disconnected from other people and society in general.” For adult children who feel that a care home is the best and safest place for an elderly parent, there still needs to be the personal time commitment to visit mom or dad with an overflow of love.

Some adult children are trying to fill the gap of social isolation by turning to robots. Yes, robots! In a technology article called “Robots and Chatbots Look After the Elderly,” Imani Moise writes about how people are using robots to help aging parents with social interaction and medication reminders. With “nursing programs stretched thin,” they are finding new ways to “meet the needs of a growing elderly population without overburdening the health system.” So robots are being used in a variety of ways, such as reminding people to take medications, providing digital companionship for the lonely, and even monitoring heartbeats.  It appears that “robotic assistants” are here to stay, but they will never be capable of replacing the elderly’s need for human-to-human contact.

In many cases, family members are still putting their life on hold to give care and support to elderly parents. In another article by Ansberry titled “The Millennial Caregiver,” she cites that “as the country grows older, its caregivers are growing younger and more squeezed. Millennials now make up 24% of the nation’s unpaid caregivers.” In other words, with life expectancy on the rise, it is increasingly common for grandchildren to provide care for grandma and grandpa. Families are still caring for families. Investments are still being made to support the family unit. This is commendable.

What does the Scripture say about caring for aging parents?

The Scripture is not silent on this issue. When Paul writes to Timothy, he takes time to specifically address the practical issues of families providing care for elderly members. Yes, out of biblical theology comes the practical realities of “how to care for aging parents.” Paul does not give many specifics, but these three verses should help inform our theology and practice on this issue:

  • Caring for aging parents is right and pleases the Lord. 1 Timothy 5:4 “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.” There is the Millennials called to action! Just as a parent, at one time, cared for every need of an infant child, so also it is right and proper for adult child or grandchildren to care for the elderly. In supporting the elderly, I love how Paul says that this makes “some return to their parents.” After all the care parents gave to their children, children should look at it as returning the favor.
  • Caring for aging parents is putting faith into practice. 1 Timothy 5:8 “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.” This is a strong indictment on believing children who stubbornly refuse to show any care for parents. They refuse to make time sacrifices. They refuse to alter their schedule. In arrogance, they are unconcerned about the social isolation or growing needs of the elderly. Paul is saying that an adult child who claims faith in Jesus has a biblical responsibility to consider the appropriate level of care and support a parent needs. To flat out refuse or reject giving care to aging parents is paramount to rejecting the faith.
  • Caring for aging parents is first the job of the family, not the church. 1 Timothy 5:16 “If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are really widows.” In other words, the church already has enough burdens. The burden of giving care to the elderly is primarily the responsibility of family members. When the elderly need help with medical support, resources, travel to doctor visits, liquidation of assets, meal preparation, and anything else, the first line of defense is the family unit. This is their calling. Yes, there are instances where the elderly have no family and need the support of the local church. But, let us not overlook the fact that the family unit holds the primary position of supporting the elderly.

The United States may indeed be running out of caregivers, but most parents have not run out of children. Grandma Trierweiler was blessed to have children who provided care and to have a son like my dad, who relocated and altered his job to support Mathilda in her final days. May God give us wisdom to navigate the challenges of an aging population and, ultimately, may we do what is pleasing to the Lord.

You are loved,
Craig Trierweiler