A few years ago, my wife, Jennifer got a call from a man who lived in the same assisted-living complex as Jennifer’s mom and he’d called because he’d seen some recent signs that Jennifer’s mom wasn’t doing very well. Even though she had been navigating life in her own apartment, cooking her own meals and was still driving her car, he felt we needed to check out her situation. We did and he was right. Her mother had ignored her doctor’s advice related to having early stage breast cancer, opting to go her own care route and over time the tumor had spread substantially and was now really affecting her life. It was immediately clear that we needed to step in. What began that day was a ratcheting up of what we’d been doing in a much less intense way for some time: taking care of Jennifer’s aging mom. I’ll spare you the details of a time that Jennifer calls her long, labor of love, but Jennifer soon had to quit her job, put most of her life on hold and focus on being her mom’s care giver. And this is a common story. Last week Rob focused on the potential of young people and the posture we should take as we navigate life alongside of them. This week we move to the other end of life, to honoring and caring for older parents… something that I know may seem to many of you to be distant or even irrelevant. But here is the truth: caring for an aging parent will eventually be an issue for everyone. Some facts: the CDC reports that as many as 10 million adults over 50 are currently caring for an aging parent; 25% of all grown children in America are providing either personal or financial care for their older parents. Now, the statistics do say that as in Jennifer’s case, this kind of care is considered by most to be a labor of love; about 80% find it rewarding. But 70% of those same people also say it was the most stressful time of their lives. There has also been a tremendous growth in what is called ‘the sandwiched generation,’ people who are sandwiched between the responsibilities of caring for their own children and the responsibilities of caring for their parents. Factor in that 10,000 baby-boomers will turn 65 every day for the next 19 years and that medical advances are lengthening our lives and things can look gloomy. Another good note: most people still feel that caring for their aging parents is a way to honor the years parents gave in caring for them; they feel it is a responsibility rooted in what it means to be a family. And you won’t get any argument from the Bible when it comes to honoring parents and caring for them as they age. It is one of the great themes of the entire book. Why, one of the Old Testament’s first stories, the story of Noah’s ark, ends telling us what happened to one of Noah’s sons when he didn’t properly honor his father. The fifth of the 10 commandments is “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12). And that commandment is amplified further in Exodus 21. “Anyone who attacks their father or mother is to be put to death… “Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.” The book of Proverbs often mentions honoring our parents and following their wise instruction. And Jesus, himself, emphasized the importance of honoring your parents in their old age in a moment captured in both Matthew and Mark. Look at Mark 7:9 with me (page ****) Jesus had just been asked by some religious leaders why his disciples didn’t ceremonially wash their hands before eating in the way that they felt was important. By the way, washing your hands had nothing to do with germs. They didn’t know about germs. They just wondered why Jesus’ disciples didn’t follow their traditions. Jesus said, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.” Now, Jesus’ primary point here had to do with making man-made traditions more important than the actual commands of God, but I don’t think it was an accident that Jesus chose honoring your father and mother as his example. In actual practice Corban had become a way of avoiding responsibility while your parents were still living; apparently, you could go back on your word after mom and dad were gone and keep your money; Jesus clearly believed we should honor and care for our parents. ‘To honor’ in the Bible essentially means ‘to place another before one’s self.’ And most 1st Century Jews took placing their parents before themselves seriously! The 1st Century Jewish historian Josephus wrote that ‘honoring your parents’ was thought to be the most important of all of the commandments and quoted rabbis that taught you should be willing to destitute yourself, publically beg if necessary, to care for your parents. The Bible is very clear on this subject. Yet, to be honest, the cultural realities of Bible times and our world could not be more different. For instance: Families in all time periods of the Bible lived together in multi-generational homes. The very old and the very young lived together and cared for one another; this was the norm. We tend to view parents and grown children living together as an unusual circumstance. Ancient parents didn’t raise their children to be independent but interdependent. It was assumed that sons would do what father did, that girls would move in with their husband’s families and everyone would participate in the life of the wider family all of their life. We raise our children to be independent; we equate dependency with failure. Personal choice was not a value then. People were not encouraged to find themselves; their identity was found in their family. We are all about personal discovery and finding yourself. Also, life expectancy was about 47 years throughout most of the Biblical timeline. The elderly were in their 50’s! It’s not uncommon now for someone in their 70’s to be caring for their parents! All of this means that we begin with a hugely different reality than when God first said, “Honor your mother and father.”
But something I have found to be helpful as I’ve been thinking about these things is this: the most important values of ancient families were: 1. Dignity: and this meant never doing anything to shame another family member; 2. Family unity: sticking together; standing with family members in times of trouble; 3. Deference: giving family members preference in all of your decisions; 4. Safety: providing protection and security for those in the family that could not defend themselves i.e. the elderly, women and children. Yes, cultural has changed, but the values of dignity, family unity, deference and safety have not changed to a great degree. They may be expressed differently in our culture, but we still want dignity, unity, deference and safety in our later years and we should want these for our parents. But finding ways to ensure these honoring values are a part of our elderly loved one’s lives often brings great change into our own lives. The AARP tells us that the average US caregiver is a 49 year old woman who works outside the home and spends nearly 20 hours a week caring for her mother for an average of 5 years. In fact, 60% of family care givers are employed full time. But when juggling care giving, work and other family responsibilities becomes too stressful 7 in 10 people make changes to their work… usually resulting in some personal economic hardships. Also, 1 in 5 people will retire early to care for a family member and the statistics are double that in the African-American and Hispanic communities where family connections, particularly between mothers and daughters, tend to be stronger and carry more expectations.
And speaking of expectations… just from my own experience of having gone through the process of caring for an elderly, ill parent twice, once very recently, unspoken expectations can really impact how things go during the time of care. Let me give you a for-real example of expectations in a family I once tried to help. The ill mother, who had years earlier remarried a younger man, expected that he would care for her in her old age. The younger husband expected that his life should not be interrupted and that his wife’s personal assets would be used to pay for professional care away from the house so his life could continue on as before. Her children expected to be able to assist hospice in caring for their mother in her own home. The husband then let it be known that if the children were going to be in the house he expected to be paid by them so he could find another place to live. This was a mess. No one had ever talked about any of these expectations early on. It’s no wonder that even 2/3 of the care givers who say the experience was rewarding also say it could have been made easier by earlier planning and honest discussions before the need for care giving arose. Now, I know that early planning discussions are hard. I turn 60 this summer and I my expectation is I’ll be able to do what I’m doing today right up to the day in my 90’s when I pass on into eternity in my sleep. But statistics give little hope that this is what will happen. And avoiding the issues, not talking to my children, which is what most people do, will not help.
I am not an expert on these things. I am a pastor. But, I do know that as a community of people who claim to be followers of Jesus we need to find ways to help one another meet God’s expectations to honor our parents during difficult and unpredictable times. Much of what I am going to say now is terribly practical and comes out of experience. I don’t expect all of you to hang on my words… but this sermon can serve as a resource for you when the time comes in your life. So, even if all of this sounds unrelated to your life now, please remember that there was a weekend when we talked about these things. First, something that you can do as a family early on that will make things so much easier is to get some of the tough, logistical decisions out of the way early. Again, these discussions are difficult to have… older people see this as an invasion of their privacy and autonomy and children often feel guilty asking their parents about these things… but they are necessary… they ensure dignity during the time that care may be needed.
First, discuss what kind of long term care mom or dad want, make a plan together and then describe the extent of care desired through a living will and then, in that living will, identify the person who will make health care decisions if mom or dad can’t. Get these important decisions out of the way! Make a list of all bank and investment accounts, with identifying account numbers and user names and passwords if any accounts are internet based. Also identify all key professional contacts: mom and dad’s attorney, financial adviser, accountant, banker and pastor and list their contact information. Review all life insurance policies, annuities and IRA accounts together to verify all beneficiaries, account numbers and contact information. Review the will together and any trust agreements to determine if they are still relevant and confirm early on who the executor is. Finally, maintain a record of where all the above is stored and make sure that a number of people know the location of these records.
Now, I’m sure many of you are thinking, “Sheesh, you want me to talk to my parents about that stuff?” Well, let me tell you, what tends to happen is you are suddenly thrown into confusing circumstances and there are tons of decisions that have to be made, usually having to do with either health care, money or the money to pay for health care and it’s best to know from a time when everyone was talking rationally what mom or dad want, what the resources are and who is on the team. Take my word for it, the earlier you can get these things behind you the better.
Secondly, if you are ever in the position of being a care-giver I have a list of things you need to do for yourself during this time to help keep you sane. I adapted some of this list from the writer John Shore but mostly from my own experience in the last 6 months. Accept that things have changed. When your parent starts in any way depending upon you, their child, the world has turned upside down. Be prepared for almost everything to change. Expect nothing emotionally. Your parent might open up to you emotionally and spiritually in their last days but they might not; your parent might get crankier and more distant. If, while you’re caring for your aging parent, you bond with them in a new and deeper way, that's great, but going into caring for them expecting or even hoping for that to happen is unwise. It’s better to have no expectations and be surprised, than to have your hopes dashed. Expect their anger. When you start taking care of your parent, they lose the one thing they've always had in relationship to you: authority over you. That's not going to be easy for them to give up. Expect them, in some way to lash out at you about that loss. Give them their autonomy. Insofar as you can, offer your parent options instead of orders. It's important for their dignity to feel as if they, and not you, are running their lives. Let them decide everything they can about their own circumstances. Ask their advice. A great way to show your parent love and respect and, especially, to affirm that they are still of value to you is to sincerely ask them for advice... especially about your life. Love your health care providers. Fact: you don't have any better friends than those helping you care for your parent. Treat every person who plays any role whatsoever in caring for your parent well. You want everyone involved in your parents care to have good, positive thoughts about your mom or dad. Protect your buttons. No one in this world knows your emotional buttons like your mom or dad does. Unless he or she is an extraordinarily loving and mature person, your parent is bound to at least once try to push your buttons. Don't let them do it. You might owe them your care, but you don't owe them your emotional well-being. Prepare for sibling insanity. Expect the worst from your sibling(s). For perfectly understandable reasons, many people lose it when their parents start to die. Money, childhood mementos, money, furniture and possessions from the family house, money, the will, money, you get the idea. Prepare for the coming craziness but do not participate in it yourself. No amount of money or stuff on earth is worth your dignity. Take care of yourself. You’re not doing yourself or your parent any favors by failing to take time to take care of yourself as a critical a part of your parent’s care routine. Exercise, eat well, get rest and occasionally get away. Talk to a friend. If you have a friend you can regularly meet with or even chat with on the phone, do it. During this time the input and love of a friend will be invaluable to you. Sharing what you're going through with someone not immediately involved can be a life saver. Have fun. One of the things we most need in life is the one thing we most readily jettison once we begin caring for an elderly parent: joy. Do whatever it takes to inject fun into the routine. Whenever, wherever and however you can, find some joy. Pray. Caring for a parent may be life’s most emotionally complex task. Open yourself up to God. Be sure to spend some regular, quiet time with Him. What you're undergoing with your parent right now is bigger than you, your parent, or anyone else involved. Do not fail to avail yourself to the greatest and mightiest resource of all.
And parents, here are a few things you can do to help your children. First, participate early on in discussions that will make your care, should you need it, so much easier for everyone. . Better yet, initiate the discussions. I know this is a hard thing to ask but it is absolutely necessary. Secondly, be aware of this fact: only 1/3 of siblings ever help in the care of their parents. The other 2/3’s don’t for all kinds of reasons… time, sibling relationships, fear, distance (the average distance between parents and their adult children is 700 miles). Parents tend to idealize their children’s relationships; they imagine all of their children are close. Please recognize that the end of your life is not necessarily going to be the time of great family healing no matter what you do. You can’t create some idealized situation by putting certain stipulations in your will or by expressing expectations of your children which fly in the face of reality. Thirdly, recognize that sharing authority over your life with others isn’t failure. Your children most likely aren’t children; they may seem that way to you, but in most cases they are adults. Most children are there to help because they love you and respect you; do what you can to make what is a difficult time for everyone easier through recognizing their sacrifices.
One heartbreaking reality is that many of our elderly people are simply being warehoused in facilities because of their family’s incapacity or unwillingness to care for their family members. Go to any nursing home and you will find some very lonely, sad and often forgotten people. When our own Jearld Cosey saw this sadness God moved in his heart to start what is now a ministry associated with Grace called Graceful Moments… a ministry whose mission is to serve Jesus by serving the senior citizens of our world. Their mission statement states: we value one-on-one relationships as we listen, love and learn from our revered Elders. We are committed to minimizing isolation one graceful moment at a time! Their Vision: To positively impact the lives of the senior community and the lives of the individuals that serve them and to make serving seniors a priority of the heart for now and future generations. If that moves you contact Jearld. Now, what Jearld and his volunteers are doing is really stepping into a role that should most often be held by those closest to an older person. But that is not always happening. But among followers of Jesus there is a clear mandate to honor our parents and to bring dignity into their final days. Now, I know that statements like that can make people feel guilty and guilt should not be the force that drives our actions. I also know that every situation carries its own unique circumstances. Your parents may have been terrible to you; they may still be making your life miserable; their health condition may demand professional care; they may be suffering from dementia and are not in any way the person you knew them to be; you may live 2000 miles from them. I know these are all real situations. But I want you to know that you are not alone. We are a big community. We have access to resources that will help you navigate these times; collectively our people have experienced it all. Do not be afraid to ask one of the pastors for help in finding ways to honor your parents. Our prayer is that you will look back on the time you spent caring for a parent with a sense of satisfaction that you did the honoring things at the right times. My wife can do that now. It wasn’t all wonderful… in fact, it wasn’t even close to being all wonderful; but, through it we found joy; we knew that we had given her mom dignity, we’d shown her that we were a family and that we were willing to defer our decisions about our own lives for her benefit and that she could trust us to keep her safe. We’d honored her. And I am confident that God was pleased… and together, I believe we can walk these difficult roads in ways that continue to please him.