Meeting the Needs of Our Older Ones—A Christian Challenge
THREE months have gone by. Yet none of the elderly woman’s children have bothered to visit her. She is a lonely resident of a home for the aged in Cape Town, South Africa. Her children live nearby.
In an old-age home in Johannesburg, an aged woman spends most of her time on the balcony of her room. She is often seen crying.
Poignant scenes like these are becoming more and more common, even in countries where elderly ones were traditionally well cared for. In Soweto, the huge black-populated complex near Johannesburg, “old people [have] lost the traditional respect, authority and care from their families,” according to one press report. A similar situation has developed among the large Indian population in South Africa. Although Indians have traditionally been solicitous of their old folks, an official recently explained that younger Indian couples ‘do not want to be burdened with their parents.’
True Christians, however, heed the Bible’s command: “Honor your father and your mother.” (Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 6:2) This obligation does not cease when their parents become old. Says 1 Timothy 5:8: “Certainly if anyone does not provide for those who are his own, and especially for those who are members of his household, he has disowned the faith and is worse than a person without faith.” Aged parents are among those a Christian would have to provide for, even if this involved considerable sacrifices—emotionally and financially.
By and large, members of the Christian congregation today have done an admirable job of caring for the emotional and physical needs of their parents. What happens, though, when elderly Christians do not have God-fearing children or grandchildren to care for them? How are their needs met?
A Congregation Responsibility
The disciple James wrote: “The form of worship that is clean and undefiled from the standpoint of our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their tribulation.” James also stated: “If a brother or a sister is in a naked state and lacking the food sufficient for the day, yet a certain one of you says to them: ‘Go in peace, keep warm and well fed,’ but you do not give them the necessities for their body, of what benefit is it? Thus, too, faith, if it does not have works, is dead in itself.”—James 1:27; 2:15-17.
So if an elderly Christian is in need of assistance, this is a matter of concern for the whole congregation. The elders can take the lead in this regard. As Paul directed at 1 Timothy 5:4, they should first determine if the elderly one has children or grandchildren who are willing to “keep paying a due compensation to their parents and grandparents, for this is acceptable in God’s sight.” If not, the elders might investigate to see what insurance or government-sponsored provisions are available. It may even be that some in the congregation are in a position to help out financially on a personal basis.
However, if no such arrangements can be made, the elders can consider if the individual qualifies to receive assistance from the congregation itself. Said Paul: “Let a widow be put on the list who has become not less than sixty years old, a wife of one husband, having a witness borne to her for fine works.”—1 Timothy 5:9, 10.
Very often, though, it is not money that is needed. The elders might determine just what is required. Does the elderly one need help shopping? Is he lonely or in need of encouragement? Does he need transportation to the meetings? Does he need someone to read the Bible and Christian publications to him? If the elderly person is physically unable to get to meetings, could tape recordings be made so that he can hear them at home? It may take several visits and chats before the full picture emerges. But as shepherds, the elders ‘ought to know the appearance of the flock.’—Proverbs 27:23.
How Congregations Have Helped
Once the needs of an elderly person are known, specific arrangements can be made. Where there is a warm, caring, and unselfish spirit in the congregation, it is not difficult to find a number of brothers and sisters willing to be of help. Thus an unfair burden is not placed upon a few individuals. For example, one congregation has worked out a schedule for publishers to visit elderly ones. The brothers and sisters are pleased to have a share in doing this, and none of the older ones are overlooked.
In another congregation, an elderly Witness was ignored by her unbelieving children. Young local Witnesses, however, did all her washing, ironing, and cleaning, also caring for her yard. The brothers helped to pay for her rent and food. They took her to assemblies and meetings. And when she died, they cared for all the funeral arrangements and expenses.
In one small South African congregation, an elderly colored brother (one of mixed racial ancestry) was completely paralyzed by a stroke. Since there was no one of his family to look after him, a sister in the congregation—a widow herself—and her son took him in. Menfolk from the congregation took turns bathing him. Additionally, a white pioneer brother would push this older brother around in a wheelchair for outings. This sight, unusual in South Africa, caused quite a stir. The congregation gave the elderly brother loving care until he died.
This is not to say, though, that meeting the needs of elderly brothers and sisters is easy. It can take real initiative and determination to overcome the problems that can arise.
Getting the Elderly to Meetings
An elderly sister, a widow and a heart patient, was visited one day by an elder. While he was there, a neighbor called and complained, saying: “I come in here often and find her in tears because no one called to take her to the Kingdom Hall.” The problem was not as serious as the neighbor made it seem, for a family in the congregation was providing regular transportation. However, on a few occasions the father had worked overtime and failed to come for the sister. Surely, other transportation arrangements could have been made.
It is, therefore, good to remember that meeting attendance is vital for older ones. (Hebrews 10:24, 25) One elder always checks to see if a certain elderly Witness is present. If she is not because the transportation arrangement has failed, the elder rushes to his car and fetches her. The lovely smile on her face amply rewards him for the extra effort.
Tactful yet Persistent
Sometimes, however, older persons can be rather independent. They may have a need for help but resist accepting it. And unless elders, or those assigned to help, are alert, such older ones may be inclined to try to ‘go it on their own.’
One elderly widow was suffering from cancer but had kept her illness to herself. She needed help moving her personal belongings to a location a mile away. Instead of alerting others to her need, she recruited the help of an 84-year-old friend. Together they loaded some things on a cart and tried to push it themselves. Soon, however, they realized that the job was beyond them, and the widow’s friend went to a nearby elder for assistance.
It may, therefore, take some tactful yet persistent inquiry on our part to determine just what we can do to help such persons. If we simply make a vague offer, such as: ‘If there’s anything you need, let me know,’ there may be a brisk response: ‘Thank you, but I don’t need anything.’ Remember, though, that when Lydia offered hospitality to the apostle Paul and others, she was not deterred by their apparent initial refusal. Rather, ‘she just made them come.’ (Acts 16:15) So be persistent. Find out the needs and likes of older ones before they must ask for help.
Of course, older ones should be appreciative of the efforts of others and not be sensitive, overly demanding, or critical. If transportation is being provided, for example, an offer to help pay for the travel expenses would be quite proper. One elderly sister bakes bread and crochets small items and gives these as gifts to those taking her to the meetings. In many cases, though, just a word of thanks is all that is needed.
Christians today endeavor to obey the command at Leviticus 19:32: “Before gray hair you should rise up, and you must show consideration for the person of an old man.” Jehovah’s servants do not follow the worldly trend of discarding old people and sidestepping filial responsibility. Instead, with time, patience, and Jehovah’s help, Christians work to meet successfully the challenge of caring for our older ones.
[Picture on page 23]
Younger ones in the congregation can often do much to help older persons