Brian De Jong
It is no great secret that people live longer today than in previous generations. We all know neighbors, friends, family members, or fellow church members who are in their eighties and nineties. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average life expectancy at birth in the year 1900 was 47.3 years. By 1950, that projection had risen to 68.2 years of age. Since that time, it has steadily increased, so that today’s average life expectancy is 78.8 years (CDC, Health, US, 2015, p. 95).
Greater longevity has many benefits and blessings, but also some downsides. Economists have long held to a principle that they call “the law of unintended consequences.” According to this idea, the actions of people and institutions can produce effects that are unanticipated or unintended.
With increased age comes a host of unanticipated challenges for the elderly, their families, and their churches. Some of those unintended consequences are medical, including chronic diseases and conditions commonly associated with aging. Other consequences involve financial issues, as the elderly cannot always pay for expensive care and sometimes outlive their retirement resources. Still other unexpected problems can involve day-to-day caregivers and the demands placed upon the adult children of aging parents.
The society around us recognizes the changing dynamics, and addresses the challenges as best it can. Search the Internet or look at a bookstore, and you’ll find information from a medical and/or psychological perspective. Interesting autobiographical accounts are available, telling about adult children caring for their aging family members.
As thoughtful Christians, we can appreciate such efforts in their proper place, but we want more. What is a biblical response to such circumstances? How does our theology play into caring for an aging parent? If the Word of God is my “only rule for faith and life,” what guidance does Scripture give me? Furthermore, what role can and should the church play?
I believe we must begin to answer these important questions by considering the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Ex. 20:12). This commandment is not only directed to small children who ought to obey Mommy and Daddy. God also addresses this imperative to adult children whose parents are in their later years.
The verb God chose to use was “honor,” which includes obedience, but implies more than mere obedience. Honoring someone means to esteem them, to show them due respect, and to value them highly.
The practical implications of this commandment are spelled out in the Westminster Larger Catechism:
Q. 127. What is the honor that inferiors owe to their superiors?
A. The honor which inferiors owe to their superiors is, all due reverence in heart, word, and behavior; prayer and thanksgiving for them; imitation of their virtues and graces; willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels; due submission to their corrections; fidelity to, defense, and maintenance of their persons and authority, according to their several ranks, and the nature of their places; bearing with their infirmities, and covering them in love, that so they may be an honor to them and to their government.
Many of these exhortations have direct application to the lives of godly adult children of aging parents. Adult children are to demonstrate “all due reverence in heart, word, and behavior.” This suggests respect shown toward aging parents, even if a parent does not always conduct himself or herself respectably.
Surely it is the proper place of children to intercede faithfully for their parents. As the adult child prays, he ought to give thanks for the many kindnesses that God has shown to and through his parent.
Because children bear the likeness of their parents, they should imitate their virtues and graces. Even the worst parent has some good quality that could be imitated. Though adults should never follow their parents in sin, they can pattern their conduct after the many good aspects of their parents’ examples.
Another way that adult children honor their parents is to manifest due submission to their corrections. Children are not always right and parents are not always wrong—even late in life. Though the parent of an adult child does not wield the same authority as earlier in life, he or she can still give wise counsel and godly rebuke to erring children.
One of the most important responsibilities of an adult child is to show fidelity to, defense of, and maintenance of their parents’ persons and authority. Respecting them means standing up for them and their honor, especially when they are no longer able to do so for themselves. As aging parents become increasingly feeble, they need their children to be loyal to them and defend them. Abuse of the elderly is increasingly common, and adult children can be a strong line of defense against unscrupulous people who would prey upon the weak. So, too, the adult child must provide maintenance for his or her parents and not declare such help “Corban” (Mark 7:9–13).
Finally, it is good to bear with the infirmities of our parents and cover them in love. An insolent son will call his parent’s faults to the attention of others and join in ridicule of the parent. But a devoted child will cover over their parents’ faults and failings.
While the fifth commandment is the starting point for our thinking, it is not the only passage that informs our duty in this area of life. Another important passage is 1 Timothy 5:1–16. In discussing widows and their care, Paul argues in verse 4 that “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.” Adult believers have a positive duty to provide for their own, and especially for those who are elderly, in their household. According to verse 8, any believer who willfully neglects this duty “has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” It is our responsibility to assist our own aging parents in their frailty.
Continuing to search the Scriptures, we also discover numerous instructive examples, both pro and con. The account of Shem, Ham, and Japheth in Genesis 9 speaks volumes about caring for an aging parent in less than ideal circumstances. Shem and Japheth honor their drunken father Noah, while Ham actively dishonors him. Shem and Japheth are accordingly blessed for their fidelity, while Ham’s descendants live under a curse. Other scriptural examples include Joseph and Jacob, Ruth and Naomi, and our Savior and his mother Mary.
From the wealth of biblical content, we can find ample wisdom for caring for aging parents, but what are some overall scriptural guidelines for the Christian care of the elderly? The first principle is evident in Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 5—namely, that believers have a primary responsibility to care for their own parents. The burden of care for elderly parents does not rest upon the civil government, medical institutions, nursing facilities, or even the church. Primarily responsible is the family: children and grandchildren. How families fulfill that obligation may differ due to circumstances, resources, and opportunities. Yet it is properly their duty. To abdicate in favor of a government program or a medical institution is not being faithful to God’s Word. Remember how Paul described it: such a person “has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Even unbelievers recognize their duty to care for their own families. How much more should Christians accept and embrace this role!
Another biblical (and Presbyterian) principle is that teamwork is important in the care of an aging parent. When there are children and grandchildren available, they must make up the core of the team. Siblings can and should work together in providing care, in offering support, in making decisions, and in overseeing financial and material matters.
This ideal is not always realized, and can sometimes cause considerable friction within the family structure. Geographical distance from parents can hamper participation on the part of one or more family members. Past relational difficulties and estrangements within the family can also make teamwork difficult. Selfishness is another problem that is not uncommon, where one or more of the adult children are simply too wrapped up in their own lives to care much for Mom and Dad. And disagreements that arise over decisions made can dampen cooperation.
Good teamwork is admittedly hard to maintain over time, but placing the entire burden of care on one child’s shoulders is unreasonable. Furthermore, it is unwise for any adult child to tell his or her siblings, “I’ll take care of them, and I don’t need your help!”
In addition to family members, the team of helpers should include medical professionals with expertise in various aspects of care. This can be particularly important if dementia becomes an issue for the elderly parent. When a parent is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, the need for specialized care becomes nonnegotiable. Having reliable doctors as part of the team is necessary, and adult children often become the liaisons between the medical professionals and the aging parent.
Another key part of the team can be legal and financial advisers. When an elderly parent becomes unable to handle his or her financial obligations and commitments, the adult child typically takes over the checkbook. Managing assets and property, paying bills, and handling taxes can be overwhelming, and expert advice and help can relieve the burden to some extent. Moreover, professional financial accountability can prevent the abuse of parental assets that sometimes alienates family members and risks legal repercussions.
Another essential member of the team should be a pastor or an elder. The spiritual care of aging parents is not insignificant. Their eternal souls need the means of grace, especially if they cannot venture out for worship services or church activities. Pastoral care for elderly saints is important if they are hospitalized or placed in a nursing home. Pastors and elders can also be sounding boards for adult children who need someone to listen, provide support, and give advice. If an elderly parent is an unbeliever, the pastor can provide evangelistic witness within the context of pastoral visits with the elderly.
Another principle arising from Scripture is that the church has a rightful place in promoting the care of elderly parents. James reminds the church, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). The care of widows is part and parcel of pure and undefiled religion!
Paul also presses the point in 1 Timothy 5, saying that the church should assist those who are “truly widows” (v. 3)—that is, widows who have no family members to care for them. The church should counsel and instruct younger widows, and support and utilize godly older widows who are able to carry out useful ministry.
The role of the church includes providing regular pastoral care for her members, regardless of their age or situation. Visiting shut-ins is an important aspect of pastoral ministry. Time spent in a hospital room or a nursing home can greatly encourage saints whose bodies are breaking down or whose minds are no longer as sharp as they once were.
The church’s care should also be directed toward adult children within the congregation who are caring for an elderly family member. Because these adult children also have responsibilities to their own spouse and children, and also to their vocation, they can be stretched very thin and grow weary. When they spend a Sunday morning at the ER with their ailing mother instead of in the worship service, they can be worn down and discouraged. Often they feel alone—and that no one else understands the complexity of their lives.
In our congregation in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, we had a significant number of our families dealing with these very challenges. An adult Sunday school class provided an opportunity to consider the teaching of the Scriptures and practical challenges. The discussion among the members of the class was as helpful as anything that I said as the teacher. Truly, believers are “competent to counsel” one another in these challenging areas of Christian duty.
The church can also be of service as the parent approaches death. Deacons can assist the family with necessary practical decisions. Pastoral care is vital to the spiritual equilibrium of adult children who are emotionally frazzled. The funeral can be a wonderful time of honoring the parent, and the words of a pastor can bring great encouragement to the grieving. Even the days following the funeral can be important for the spiritual recovery of exhausted saints.
When the family and the church work together under the guidance of God’s Word for the benefit of aging parents, God is well pleased. These two God-ordained institutions should cooperate in this weighty matter. In these ways, the love of Christ is displayed to a watching world, and our care for the elderly can affirm our Christian witness in these dark times.
The author is the pastor of Grace OPC in Sheboygan, Wis. New Horizons, January 2017.