Caring for the Aged—Challenges and Rewards
SHINETSU, a Christian minister, was enjoying his assignment immensely. His family of three included his wife’s mother. They were happily working with a small congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, teaching people the Bible, until one day he was asked to consider traveling with his wife to visit other congregations. It would require a move every week. He was delighted with the prospect, but who would care for Mother?
Many families will eventually face a similar challenge—how best to care for aging parents. Usually little thought is given to the matter while the parents are in rather good health and working. However, little things may reveal that they are getting older, such as trembling hands as they try to thread a needle or a failing memory as they struggle to recall when they last saw some misplaced item. Often, though, it is a sudden accident or illness that makes one aware of their needs. Something must be done.
In some countries parents enjoying relatively good health prefer to live their golden years with their mates alone rather than with their children. In other countries, such as in many Oriental and African countries, it is the norm for the elderly to live with their children, particularly the eldest son. Especially is this true if one of the parents is bedridden. In Japan, for example, of those who are 65 years of age and over and are bedridden to some extent, about 240,000 are cared for at home by their families.
Moral and Scriptural Obligations
Although we are living in the generation in which many have become “lovers of themselves,” lacking “natural affection,” we clearly have moral and Scriptural obligations toward the elderly. (2 Timothy 3:1-5) Tomiko, who cares for her elderly mother, stricken with Parkinson’s disease, expressed the moral obligation she felt when she said about her mother: “She cared for me for 20 years. Now I want to do the same for her.” Wise King Solomon admonished: “Listen to your father who caused your birth, and do not despise your mother just because she has grown old.”—Proverbs 23:22.
Neither religious prejudice nor animosity on the part of an unbelieving parent cancels that Scriptural directive. The Christian apostle Paul was inspired to write: “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.” (1 Timothy 5:8) Jesus set the example for us when, as one of his final acts before dying, he arranged for his mother to be cared for.—John 19:26, 27.
Dealing With the Difficulties Encountered
Many adjustments need to be made by all when families are reunited after living separately for many years. These changes call for a great deal of love, patience, and mutual understanding. If the eldest son, or another son or a daughter, moves his family into the parents’ home, a whole new set of circumstances presents itself. There may be a new job, new schools for the children, and a new neighborhood to get used to. Often it will mean increased duties for the wife.
It will be just as hard for the parents to adjust. They may have become accustomed to a measure of privacy, quiet, and freedom; now they will have the hubbub of energetic grandchildren and their friends. They have been used to making their own decisions and may resent any attempts to direct them. Many parents, foreseeing the day when their sons’ families will come to live with them, have built separate houses nearby or additions to their homes with connecting hallways, providing a measure of independence for all.
Where the home is small, greater adjustments may be necessary to make room for the new arrivals. One mother laughed as she recalled how upset her four daughters were when additional furniture and other items kept coming into their bedrooms in order to make room for their 80-year-old grandmother. Still, most of these problems usually work themselves out as all come to recognize the need for the adjustments and remember the Bible’s admonition that love “does not look for its own interests.”—1 Corinthians 13:5.
A Loss of Freedom
A serious problem for a Christian woman may develop if her husband does not share her faith and decides to move the family in with his parents. The demands of caring for the family may seem to make it nearly impossible for her to balance her Christian obligations with her other duties. Setsuko said: “My husband felt it was dangerous to leave his somewhat senile mother home alone, and he wanted me to be home at all times. If I tried to go to a meeting, he would get upset and complain. At first, because of my Japanese background, I too felt it was wrong to leave her alone. But then, in time, I realized that things could be worked out.”
Hisako had a similar problem. “When we moved in with my husband’s family,” she reports, “he, because of fear of what the relatives would think, wanted me to change my religion and stop my religious activities. To make matters worse, on Sundays the relatives who lived nearby would come to visit, making it hard for me to go to the meetings. Further, the children wanted to play with their cousins rather than go to the meetings. I could see that our spirituality was being affected. I had to take a firm stand and explain to my husband that my religion was not something to be changed like a suit of clothes but was important to me. In time, the family adjusted.”
Some have solved the problem of getting more free time by having a part-time housekeeper come in to help one or two days a week. Others have found a measure of freedom for personal errands and Christian activity by seeking the aid of their children, nearby relatives, even friends in the congregation. Husbands too have been able to lend a helping hand on nights and weekends when they are in the home.—Ecclesiastes 4:9.
Keeping Them Active
Keeping the elderly active is another challenge to be faced. Some elderly ones are happy to share in cooking and other chores around the home. They feel needed if asked to watch the children and find contentment in caring for a small vegetable garden, tending flowers, or sharing in some hobby.
Others, however, want to sleep most of the day and expect to be waited on. But keeping them as active as possible appears to be important to their well-being, longevity, and mental alertness. Hideko found that although her mother was in a wheelchair, taking her to the meetings was just the stimulation her mother needed. She was warmly welcomed by all and was included in conversations. The attention given to her eventually led to her agreeing to study the Bible with an older woman. A couple, who have a parent suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, take her with them to their Christian meetings. “She generally does not want to do anything,” they observed, “but she is happy at the meetings. She is warmly welcomed, so she willingly comes. We feel it is very beneficial for her.”
Shinetsu, mentioned at the beginning of the article, solved his problem by finding an apartment for his wife’s mother central to the area where he served as a traveling minister. He and his wife would thus stay with her between his visits to different congregations each week. His wife, Kyoko, said: “My mother feels that she is an important part of our work and feels needed. She is delighted when my husband asks her to cook some special dish.”
Dealing With Senility
As parents age, various degrees of senility may develop, so they require more and more attention. They forget days, times, seasons, and promises. They may fail to cut their hair and wash their clothes. They may even forget how to dress and bathe themselves. Many become disoriented, whereas others have a hard time sleeping at night. There is a tendency to repeat themselves and get irritated if it is brought to their attention. The mind plays tricks on them. They may insist that something has been stolen from them or that robbers are trying to break into the house. One family with four daughters had to endure constant groundless accusations of sexual wrongdoing. “It was disagreeable,” they said, “but we just learned to endure the charges and try to change the subject. Disagreeing with Grandma was futile.”—Proverbs 17:27.
Emotional Needs to Be Filled
Age brings trials to the elderly. There are grievous sicknesses, loss of mobility, and mental anguish to endure. Many feel that their lives have no direction or purpose. They may feel that they are a burden and express a desire to die. They need to feel loved, respected, and included. (Leviticus 19:32) Hisako said: “We always try to include Mom in our conversation when she is present, making her the subject where possible.” Another family endeavored to bolster their grandfather’s self-respect by asking him to conduct the daily discussion of a Bible text.
One must constantly strive to maintain a proper view of the elderly. Bedridden patients resent it when they feel that they are being spoken down to or treated with disrespect. “Mother was alert,” explained Kimiko, who lived with her disabled mother-in-law, “and she knew when I did not have my heart in nursing her or was being condescending.” Hideko also had to work on her attitude. “At first I was frustrated when I had to care for my mother-in-law. I had been a pioneer [a full-time minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses], and I missed the ministry. Then I saw that I needed to adjust my thinking. Although the house-to-house ministry is important, this too was an important part of heeding God’s commandments. (1 Timothy 5:8) I realized that I needed to develop more love and empathy if I was going to have joy. My conscience would bother me when I simply did things mechanically out of a sense of duty. When I had an accident and was in pain, I thought of my mother-in-law and the pain she had. After that it was easier for me to show more warmth and empathy.”
Carers Also Need Care
Not to be overlooked is the need for expressing appreciation to the one on whom the burden of caring for the aged particularly falls. (Compare Proverbs 31:28.) Most women continue to care for their obligations with or without hearing expressions of appreciation. When we consider what their work involves, however, such expressions are certainly appropriate. They will likely have extra cleaning, washing, and cooking to do. Consider, too, trips to the hospital or doctor, as well as feeding or washing an elderly patient. One woman, who long cared for her mother-in-law, said: “I know it is hard for my husband to put it into words, but he does show me in other ways that he appreciates what I am doing.” Simple words of thanks can make it all seem worthwhile.—Proverbs 25:11.
There Are Rewards Too
Many families who have cared for aging parents for years say that this has helped them cultivate important Christian qualities: endurance, self-sacrifice, unselfish love, diligence, humility, and tenderness. Many families have drawn closer together emotionally. An additional bonus is the opportunity to converse more with parents and get to know them better. Hisako said about her mother-in-law: “She had an interesting life. She went through a lot. I have come to know her better and have learned to appreciate qualities in her that I did not recognize before.”
“There was a time before I studied the Bible when I wanted to get a divorce and flee the situation,” explained Kimiko, who took care of her husband’s parents and his bedridden grandmother. “Then I read that we should ‘look after . . . widows in their tribulation.’ (James 1:27) I am happy I did my best, as now none of the family can rightfully complain about my beliefs. My conscience is clear.” Another said: “I have seen with my own eyes the terrible effects of Adam’s sin and now appreciate even more the need of the ransom.”
Will you soon be welcoming another member of your family to your household? Or will you perhaps be moving in with your aged parents? Do you feel some trepidation? That is understandable. There will be adjustments to make. But you will find yourself richly rewarded in meeting the challenge successfully.
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The aged need to feel loved and respected