At Work

The Leadership Challenge of Honoring Our Aging Parents

Email Print

The middle-aged woman congratulated the new mother on her beaming baby girl. She commended her neighborhood group for helping this younger woman in this exciting but difficult period of time. But as we walked away she tearfully commented to me:

I have all the same problems as that young woman with her eight-pound baby. My mother can’t feed herself, needs to be bathed and changed, weighs 140 pounds, doesn’t recognize me most days…but there’s no neighborhood group bringing me casseroles.

There are more people over eighty years old than ever before in history. The fastest growing demographic in the developed world are senior citizens.

We celebrate the many medical advances resulting in more children surviving to adulthood. We praise new treatments and capabilities allowing us to live better as we age. Yet this presents serious challenges, especially with the cost and effort of elder care and the ravages of Alzheimer’s and neurological degeneration.

This is a leadership challenge in our organizations and our communities. There are significant economic costs. People without a biblical worldview will suggest and recommend many actions which would violate our conscience. We are routinely faced with situations where “we can’t make everyone happy.” How can we think about elder care from a biblical framework?

A Biblical Framework for Elder Care

The fifth commandment – honor your father and mother – has not been repealed. Nor does the command say, “unless it’s inconvenient or expensive.”

Second, realize this is both an individual responsibility and a community burden. Galatians 6:2-5 reminds us,

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load.

The burden is a weight greater than one person could carry. Still, the load is a weight an adult is expected to be able to carry. Caring for our elders has massive collective burdens and individual loads. Both are difficult.

Suggestions for Honoring Our Aging Parents

Use these suggested guidelines as you consider your leadership role in these situations with aging parents:

  • Our aging parents are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), and loved by God as we are.
  • There is a larger purpose for their life in God’s sovereignty, even if they aren’t “contributing,” even in suffering, even if we cannot see it. Supporting them as they experience difficulties is one of the ways God shapes us to become more Christ-like.
  • We must encourage our parents to continue to serve others in love. Our elders have important responsibilities to train younger men and women and be role models. They can be present with others, sharing life on life. They can teach and provide perspective. They can pray for others.
  • We should expect their discipleship to continue. New spiritual growth is possible and desirable! As part of the community of disciples we should teach, correct, and equip them for ministry (Eph. 4:11-12). We must include them. We must work to resolve all open issues, no differently than for any other member of our community of faith. To do less would be to deny their God-granted stature as disciples.
  • We must patiently love our parents, especially when it becomes more difficult. “Love is patient and kind; loves not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.” (1 Cor. 13:4-7)
  • We should continue to support research and innovations which improve the quality of life for the eldest among us.
  • We should give as much honor and support to people who commit themselves to elder-care as we do for people who commit themselves to caring for infants and children.

Paul’s encouragement to the Galatian church fits here: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are in the household of faith.” (Gal. 6:9-10)

Have our latest content delivered right to your inbox!
  • Scott

    Thanks for these important reminders and truth, Glenn. I especially resonated with your line, “People without a biblical worldview will suggest and recommend many actions which would violate our conscience.” This is a constant battle. As Christians we have several answers like “trust in the Lord” and “pray for the sick”, but those fall on deaf unbeliever’s ears. So it is a challenge to marry our spiritual approach to illnesses and dementia with man-dependent ones coming from the rest of the family. But I need to be reminded that in all our parents should still be, and can be, honored.

    • Glenn Brooke

      Thanks, Scott. I confess I had a long, poorly-worded paragraph in an earlier draft that went into some detail about the kinds of things we must be wary of (e.g., assisted suicide) and pulled it out. My thought is that if something is suggested that does not square with this biblical framework then we need to act. The testimony of caring for elders is also powerful. Multiple times in my global travels I’ve heard people express shock and dismay that American’s don’t take care of sick parents.

  • Tabeth Mucheke

    Thanks Glenn for this message, this is my first time commenting. Your post really hit to the core for me because I have also noticed that our culture is very dismissive towards the elderly and it’s sad. I’m based in South Africa and the attention towards our elderly ends with the very minimal government grants and they are left to fend for themselves in difficult geographical, physical and psychological situations. I pray that I can be part of the solution for the elderly in Africa.

    • Glenn Brooke

      Tabeth, may our great and gracious Lord give you courage and insights in how to help.

  • Avonlea Blizzard

    I appreciate your fervency and biblical framework on this issue. I would like to ask one question about your practical suggestions. What would you suggest for those who are caring for parents who continue to reject the Gospel? My mother is caring for my grandmother; however, my grandmother seems to grow in selfishness and stubborness rather than wisdom with no Holy Spirit to guide her. She is the author of much of her own suffering, resistant to practical change that could help, hostile to the gospel, and uncooperative even in basic health measures. She is not suffering from dementia but from health problems that are taking away her ability to care for herself well. My mother continues to serve and love her faithfully.
    What would you suggest to those laboring under such burdens? When would you serve silently and when would you confront? Would you insist on things that would seem to bring a parent relief, even if she cries that you are robbing her of her independence? Would you indulge his demands for independence that are taxing to you and the parent? Would you get the church community involved, even if the parent rejects contact with that community?

    • Glenn Brooke

      I empathize with your situation. It’s difficult to love people. I don’t think there’s a formula to offer. Two thoughts to share: (1) Jesus commands us to love people, but He’s in the people redemption & restoration business, not us. We’re called to love but not to “fix” people. (2) Is there any fundamental difference between your grandmother, a wayward 20-something daughter, or an believing spouse? In all cases we and our church community express love, pray continually, do good, share the gospel in words, and work as the Lord’s servants. You and your mother should seek the support of your community of faith.

      • Avonlea Blizzard

        Thank you. We’ll keep on sowing in faith that someday we may reap.

    • Beth Leasure-Hudson

      After completing nearly a decade of successful elder care of both my parents, there were many lessons. Because I was not an expert in all things geriatric nor had I experienced aging and end of life myself, I assembled a team of experts to consult on health, well-being, spiritual growth, financial management, and many other practical matters. Honoring a parent is doing what’s in their best interest, even if in their present condition, they are unable to agree with your choices on their behalf. The role of child-parent reverses somewhat. Sometimes this does involve confrontation as their advocate for health care – of their resistance, fears, ignorance, or stubbornness; and sometimes with others – their other caregivers, docs, insurance providers etc. Even other family members at times. It frequently involves setting boundaries for the benefit of the caregiver and the parent. Tough love and compassion toward self/others, simultaneously. That being said, there are many decisions that must be made where the caregiver must weigh multiple options including continuing to give care because what good is a caregiver unable to provide proper care because of some misunderstanding of obligation toward a parent? There would be more knowledgeable and perhaps more empathetic choices than an “obligated” child in that case. A parent resistant to spiritual support should not be forced to be in contact with that community; however, you can ask that community to pray for the parent and for the caregiver. God’s work is not over in someone’s life – even in a demented elder – until the very last breath; and I’ve seen remarkably cathartic workings of the Holy Spirit in this regard, but it is God’s work left best to Him. Further, AARP offers wonderful information for caregivers on their website and for grief recovery related to care-giving. Care-giving is an incredibly challenging calling; not all children would be called to this role, and it is better left to those who are – for the sake of the parent as well. I can’t say that I was called to it per se, but it did provide God with rich soil to teach me many things which will be useful now that I’m returning to my profession; and it gave me a profound experience about who I am. I saw His work and faithfulness toward my parents throughout the experience even through the final breath. It was incredibly rewarding in many ways. Even with it being my primary responsibility, there were periods when others took the lead and my role was more distant management for my sake and for my parent, who needed more care than I alone could provide. And I cannot say that I enjoyed the decade. It was more like a spiritual valley/desert of learning, leaning, and preparation. It was, after all, the valley of the shadow of death where God led me closely through hard things to an enlarged place. Worth the trip! I have no regrets and left it out there completely giving my utmost especially because my parents’ experience was as wonderful as it could have been while aging and learning the last lessons of life in their physical bodies. You can not and must not protect them from the hardness that God sends at various times, but you can make it as comfortable as possible and glean as much as possible for them and with them. You must also think responsibly about what their choices mean for others, such as how long to drive for example. Godspeed.

      • Lynn Sly

        I so admire your commitment. A friend told me that I must remember I am my mother’s daughter, not her nurse. I understand that to mean that we can only do our best and should forgive ourselves if we fall short. As Christians we are told to forgive others but some of us also need to forgive ourselves.

        • Beth Leasure-Hudson

          Yes that’s a good point. After the 7th year, it was time to change my role back to daughter and away from primary caregiver. We were fortunate to have this option. The primary responsibility was still mine but the daily care was now shared by a team of experts. I’m grateful that I got to be daughter again before it was too late. And a bit like childbirth, now that it’s all over – I just miss my parents and am grateful that I was able to be a big part of their lives until the end.

      • Avonlea Blizzard

        Thank you for your insights. My mother has not forced anything on my grandmother, but your advice about the “obligated” child is something to carefully consider. Also, I think the line between my grandmother’s wishes and what’s in her best interest may start diverging. Your idea to seek outside help in this regard is good. My mother has engaged with her community of faith, asking for prayer continually and physical assistance on occasion. Thank you for your practical advice of what lines to draw where in order to fully honor an aging parent who has not yet accepted Christ. And as always, my mother labors under the hope that the Holy Spirit will soften my grandmother’s heart, even at the eleventh hour.

  • Lynn Sly

    I have an elderly mother (97) in frail care. Like the shepherds in the time of Christ she is a despised member of society, doesn’t know what day of the week it is and could never give evidence in court. Yet the angel appeared to the shepherds rather than anyone else. A humbling reminder that we are all equal in God’s sight.

Further readings on At Work

  • At Work

I was thirty-four and walking through the door of the largest advertising agency in Minneapolis for my first day. How…

  • At Work

We’ve all seen them: inspirational posters in the hallways extolling the company values. They often feature things like integrity, innovation,…

Have our latest content delivered right to your inbox!