Caring for the Aged—A Growing Problem
THE story is told about a little girl who asked her mother: “Why does Grandma eat out of the wooden bowl but the rest of us eat out of our beautiful dishes?” Her mother explained: “Mama’s hands are shaky, and she might drop our good dishes and break them, so she uses the wooden bowl instead.” After thinking about this for a moment, the little girl asked: “Then would you save the wooden bowl for me so I will have it for you when I grow up?” This preview of coming events might have startled the mother, even shaken her a little. But upon reflection, it may also have reassured her—her little girl was planning on taking care of her!
The prospect for many of the elderly may not be so bright. They have become the fastest growing segment of the population in many parts of the world. World Press Review of August 1987 reported that some 600 million people, 12 percent of the planet’s population at that time, were then over the age of 60.
In the United States, the elderly are outpacing the teenage population for the first time ever. The science editor of a New York City newspaper reported: “Thirty million Americans now are 65 or older—one in every eight of us, more than ever before, and: The older population is growing twice as fast as the rest of the population. . . . The average life expectancy for Americans was 35 in 1786. For an American child born in 1989, it’s 75.”
In Canada the number of the very elderly, age 85 and up, is expected to more than triple by the end of the century.
In Europe a hundred years ago, the elderly made up just 1 percent of its total population. Today their numbers have soared to 17 percent.
A U.S. Census Bureau report on “Aging in the Third World” said: “Four-fifths of the increase in older people is occurring in the Third World.”
Four decades ago the life expectancy of the Chinese people was about 35 years. By 1982 the figure had jumped to 68 years. Today over 90 million Chinese are counted as elderly, and it is estimated that by the end of the century, the figure will rise to 130 million, or 11 percent of the population.
Special Effort to Care for Your Own
As the number of the very elderly escalates worldwide, the perplexing question of how to care for them becomes more critical. In Bible times the problem was not as difficult. They had the extended family, where children, parents, and grandparents lived together. Children and grandparents interacted with benefit to one another, and parents could make the necessary material provisions and also see to it that any special care needed by the elderly in the household was made available. Such extended families with care for the elderly are still the rule in some countries today. (For examples, please see the box on page 8.) But that is not the case in the more affluent nations where the family circle is limited to parents and children. When the children grow up and marry and have children of their own, often they are faced with the problem of caring for their aged, frail, and often chronically ill parents.
In this present system of things, to do this can be a weighty problem indeed! As undesirable as it is, under present economic conditions, it may be necessary for both parents to work. Food is expensive, rents are high, bills come in. Even two paychecks can disappear quickly. If the woman of the house does not work outside, she may be busy with children, shopping, cleaning—a full-time job in itself. This is not to say that an elderly parent, or parents, should not be cared for in the home. What it does say is that it can be a very difficult assignment. The elderly have their aches and pains, and understandably they can at times be complaining and crotchety, not always congenial and of a sunny disposition. None of which means that a strenuous effort should not be made to care for an elderly parent in the home.
Often, the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the surviving daughters. Study after study has revealed that although men may provide financial assistance, it is primarily women who provide the personal hands-on care. They cook meals for the aged—often spoon-feeding them—they bathe and dress them, they change them, they drive them to doctors and hospitals, they see to their medical supplies. Often they are the eyes, the ears, and the mind of their elderly parents. Their job is a formidable one, and their willingness to do it despite its hardships is truly commendable and pleasing to Jehovah God.
The belief that most adult children send their elderly parents away to spend their declining years in a nursing home is just not true, according to Carl Eisdorfer, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center on Adult Development and Aging at the University of Miami, Florida, U.S.A. “Studies have shown that the majority of care for older people is provided by their own families,” he said.
Statistics give support to his claim. In the United States, for example, 75 percent of those polled said that they would want their parents, if they were no longer capable of living alone, to live with them. “This confirms that families do want to take care of their own,” Dr. Eisdorfer said. And a report in Ms. magazine said: “Only 5 percent of those over 65 are in nursing homes at any one time because both the elderly and most of their relatives prefer home to institutional care.”
The following case shows the effort some make to care for an elderly parent. The report is from a traveling representative of Jehovah’s Witnesses who visits congregations throughout the United States. He explains how he and his wife were determined to keep her 83-year-old mother with them rather than put her in a nursing home. “I recalled the saying,” he commented, “that one mother could take care of 11 children, but 11 children could not take care of one mother. Well, the two of us were determined to take care of one elderly mother. Although she was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, she traveled with us in the trailer.
“At first she went with us when we preached the Kingdom message from door to door. Later we had to take her in a wheelchair. Householders seemed to appreciate how we looked after her. At times she would say things that were not right, but we never embarrassed her by correcting her. She still, however, had her sense of humor. I’d caution her and say, ‘Watch your step, Mother,’ and she’d reply, ‘I don’t have a stepmother.’ We took care of her until she died, at the age of 90.”
When Nursing Homes Are Needed
Nearly two million elderly do live in nursing homes in the United States. In most cases, however, it is not a matter of the “callous warehousing of the elderly,” as some have called the putting of them in nursing homes. Rather, it is often the only alternative to adequate care for those unable to care for themselves. All too often, children of the elderly are not in a position to care for their aged parents, many of whom may be severely afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease or bedridden with some other debilitating malady that requires special round-the-clock care. In such cases nursing homes may be the only places capable of meeting these special needs.
A missionary of the Watch Tower Society in Sierra Leone, Africa, told of the pain his mother experienced when she had to put her mother in a nursing home: “Recently my mother in Florida put her mother, Helen, in a nursing home. It was a very difficult decision for her. She had cared for Helen for four years, but now Helen needed full-time nursing care. Mother’s friends, family, and various social workers and doctors all supported the decision to put Helen in the nursing home, but still it was a very difficult decision to make. My mother felt that since her mother had cared for her as a child, now it was only right for her to care for her mother in her old age—the repayment, or the ‘due compensation,’ the apostle Paul had talked about. As it was, however, Helen was better cared for in the nursing home than she could have been at my mother’s home.”—1 Timothy 5:4.
Another Witness, working at the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses, told of his father’s bout with cancer. “My dad was a zealous Witness for over 30 years. For the last nine years of his life, he had cancer. My wife and I spent our vacations with him and took extended leaves of absence to be with him and help. Other relatives helped in various ways. But most of that time, he was cared for by his wife and a married daughter who lived next door. He also had visits from members of the congregation of Witnesses where he had attended. The last two years, he was in and out of a hospital, and the last five months, he spent in an extended-care facility where he could get the specialized care he required.
“The decision to move him from home to the facility was a family one, with him participating. He decided that his care was becoming too arduous, even impossible, for the family in the home. ‘It’s going to kill all of you!’ he exclaimed. ‘It’s time to go to this extended-care facility. Better for you; better for me.’
“So he went. For most of nine years, the family had cared for him, and only as a last resort did he go into the extended-care facility for the specialized, round-the-clock care that was required.”
When, as a last resort, a nursing home becomes needed for adequate care, the family should seek out one that is clean and staffed by kindly and competent care-givers. If it is at all possible, arrange for a visitor every day—a family member, someone from the congregation, at least a phone call—so that the elderly person does not feel abandoned, forgotten, totally alone, and thinking that no one cares. When others in the nursing home are having visitors, but no one comes to see your loved one—this can be very disheartening. So try to see the person regularly. Visit with him. Listen to him. Pray with him. The latter is very important. Even if he seems to be in a coma, pray anyway. You never know to what degree he may be hearing something!
When making decisions regarding parents, try to do so with them instead of for them. Let them feel they are still in control of their lives. Offer the needed assistance with all the love and patience and understanding possible. Then is the time to repay, as the apostle Paul wrote, what we owe our parents and grandparents.
“The Whole Obligation of Man”
In the hustle and bustle of this modern world, it is easy for the elderly to get pushed into the backwaters of life. Especially, young ones just entering the race and hurrying to get on with their lives tend to feel that the elderly just get in the way, that they have outlived their usefulness. Maybe we should all stop and reflect: What qualifies a life as useful anyway? It’s easy for the young to devalue the lives of the old and attach an inflated value to their own.
It is not, however, just the old and the feeble who may make little or no contribution to what seems to count. King Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes frequently referred to the activities of people in general as vanity. He spoke of youths and their temporary vigor and showed how the passing years will ravage their bodies just as it already has the bodies of millions of others. All end up as dust and earn this assessment: “The greatest vanity!” said Solomon. “Everything is vanity.”—Ecclesiastes 12:8.
But he did extol the words of the wise ones and summed up his observations on life with these words: “The conclusion of the matter, everything having been heard, is: Fear the true God and keep his commandments. For this is the whole obligation of man.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13) That is the formula for a useful life, not how young or how old you are or what kind of mark you make in this materialistic old world that is passing away.
To govern our human relationships, Jesus gave the guiding principle that has come to be known as the Golden Rule: “Always treat others as you would like them to treat you.” (Matthew 7:12, The New English Bible) To apply that rule, we must be able to put ourselves in the other person’s place, to see how we would like to be treated if we were in his place. If we are old and feeble and in need of help, how would we like to be treated by one of our children? Will we pay back our parents for the 20 years of care and support they lavished on us when we were helpless children by now caring for them when they are helpless in their old age?
As we look at our elderly parents in their need, perhaps we will review our childhood and recall all that they did for us when we were babies, children, being nursed through childhood sicknesses by them, fed and clothed by them, taken by them on outings for our childish delight. Then, with loving concern for their welfare, consider what is best to meet their needs.
That may be making the arrangements necessary to keep them at home if at all possible. On the other hand, the best arrangement for all involved, including the elderly parents, may be an extended-care facility or nursing home. Whatever decision is made, it should be respected by others. As we are told: “Why do you judge your brother? Or why do you also look down on your brother?” And again: “Who are you to be judging your neighbor?”—Romans 14:10; James 4:12.
Whatever may work out for elderly parents, whether living with their children or in a nursing home, if they have their mental faculties intact, they may still have a meaningful life. They may learn of Jehovah’s purpose for all obedient mankind to live forever in health on a paradise earth. They may find a new career, a joyful and fulfilling one of serving their Creator, Jehovah God. This then becomes the most purposeful and happy time of their life. Some in their advanced years, when others have given up on life itself, have come to know of Jehovah’s promises of everlasting life in a new world of righteousness without end and have found a new joy in talking to others about that hope.
To conclude with a case in point. One California woman, at the age of 100, was introduced to these promised blessings by a nurse in the nursing home, and at the ripe age of 102, she was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. She finished her life, not in a ‘vanity of vanities’ dead end, but by fulfilling her ‘whole obligation of life,’ namely, ‘fearing the true God and keeping his commandments.’
[Blurb on page 6]
It has been said that years ago one mother could take care of 11 children; now 11 children can’t take care of one mother
[Box on page 8]
Showing Honor by Caring for the Elderly—Comments From Around the World
“In Africa there are few or no government provisions for the elderly—no nursing homes, no Medicare or Social Security benefits, no pensions. Old people are looked after by their children.
“A fundamental reason why childbearing is so important to people in developing countries is that their children will look after them in the future. Even poor people will produce many children, reasoning that the more they have, the better the chances that some will survive and look after them.
“Though standards are changing in Africa, for the most part, families take seriously the responsibility to look after their elderly. If there are no children, other family members will look after them. Often those providing care are in a weak financial position, but they share what they have.
“Another way that children care for their parents is to lend them their own children. Often it is the grandchildren that do the work around the house.
“In developed countries, people live longer because of medical advances. In the developing world, this isn’t the case. Poor people die because they can’t afford even the limited medical help that is available. A proverb spoken in Sierra Leone is: ‘No poor person is sick.’ That is, since a poor person has no money for treatment, he is either well or dead.”—Robert Landis, missionary in Africa.
“In Mexico people have high respect for elderly parents. Parents live alone in their homes when their sons get married, but when the parents get older and are in need, the children take them into their home and care for them. They feel that this is an obligation.
“It is common to see grandparents living in the same home as their sons and grandchildren. Grandchildren love and respect their grandparents. The family is very close.
“In Mexico homes for elderly persons are rare because the sons and daughters take care of the elderly. If there are several sons, sometimes the last one getting married stays at home and lives with the parents.”—Isha Aleman, from Mexico.
“In Korea we are taught in the home and at school to honor elderly people. In the family the eldest son is supposed to take care of his old parents. If he is unable to support them, another son or daughter will do so. Many couples live with and take care of their old parents under the same roof. Parents expect to live with their children, and they like to instruct and take care of their grandchildren. It is regarded as shameful for a young couple to send their old parents to a nursing home.
“My father was the eldest son, and we lived with our grandparents in the same house. Whenever we left home, we informed them as to where we were going and when we would be back. When we came back home, we first dropped by their room and greeted them with our head bowed down and let them know we were back because they were concerned about the whole family’s welfare.
“When we handed something to them, we held the item with two hands. It is impolite to pass anything with one hand to persons held in respect, such as parents, grandparents, teachers, or higher officers in public service. When we had some special food, we served our grandparents first.
“Honoring the elderly is not limited to just family members but extends to all the elderly. From primary school through high school, there are classes in ethics. During that class, we learned through fairy tales or lectures how to respect and honor the elderly.
“When an old person enters a room, the young people are expected to stand up. If a young person is seated on a bus and an elderly man or woman has no seat, then it is customary for the younger person to yield his seat. If an old man is carrying a very heavy-looking package, you stop and ask whether he needs help or not. If he says yes, you carry the package to his destination for him.
“As the Bible prophesied, in these last days of the system of things, the moral standard would be deteriorating day by day. Korea is not exempt from this influence. Still, this kind of respectful attitude toward elderly people remains in the hearts of many Koreans.” (2 Timothy 3:1-5)—Kay Kim, from Korea.
[Picture on page 7]
Visiting the elderly is time well spent