The Aging Family:
Prequel To Eternity
Aging Family Issues – Part 3
“Children’s children are a crown to the aged, and parents are the pride of their children.” — Proverbs 17:6 NIV
The above quoted proverb captures the intergenerational dynamics of the aging stage of the family life cycle. Three generations are alluded to in this verse: “the aged” (grandparents), “children” (offspring of grandparents) and “children’s children” (grandchildren). In most cases three generations of the family are intricately involved in and impacted by issues and events that accompany the aging process. Some of them are directly experienced when aging parents become infirm and need the attention and care of their grown children. Other issues are indirect, such as when a daughter spends extended time away from her husband to provide in-home care for her aging parent in another state.
In many ways the quality of the aging stage of the family life cycle results from how the previous stages were lived and experienced. In fact, the way the family copes with the issues of aging is based on the assets, attitudes and affections the family has cultivated in the preceding stages of the family life cycle. This reality was recently brought home to me by a bumper sticker I saw on a recreational vehicle that read, “We’re spending our children’s inheritance!” This quip, though intended to be funny, touches a central nerve of the aging family syndrome – the nature and use of family assets.
Let’s look at some of the issues and biblical references that pertain to the aging Christian family. Most writings on the needs of aging parents emphasize three issues with regard to what is involved and how the family responds – assistance, affection and affirmation.
• Assistance encompasses the practical, material and physical help family members provide to aging parents. This dimension of care involves time, effort, people and resources. As strength and ability to do for themselves declines, the need for help (assisted living) arises, along with a host of questions such as: What needs to be done? Who will do it? When will it be done? How will it be done? Who decides?
• Affection involves emotional caring, giving and receiving love, caring for and being cared about by family members and friends. The expressions of love in its many forms, including words and touch, are crucial to the emotional well-being of aging persons.
• Affirmation relates to self-esteem, respect, importance and a sense of being valued. This is how aging persons perceive their place in and their importance to the family. Messages that affirm the value of, respect for and importance of aging parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are critical.
Assistance provides observable contributions to the aging persons while affection and affirmation support them psychologically. For the Christian family there is also a fourth issue – anticipation. We have already alluded to this issue in the sense that Christians live in expectation of the soon coming of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and the transformation of their bodies into ones that emulate their risen Lord (1 Cor. 15:51-54). Thus the anticipation of either resurrection or rapture sustains the spirit of optimism in this life and fulfillment in the next (1 Th. 4:16-18).
Biblical References For Caring
God’s Word is explicit with regard to caring for parents. Paul instructs us to honor our parents and he reaffirms the Old Testament commandment that promises a long life as a benefit of doing so (Eph. 6:2; Dt. 6:2). This edict is particularly relevant when parents are aging, because it involves activating the assistance, affection and affirmation components described above. In fact, Jesus used the “honor your father and mother” commandment (Ex. 20:12) to make a specific point about the responsibility of children to care for their parents. In Mark 7:9-13 He castigated the Pharisees for nullifying God’s Word relative to caring for parents by creating practices that gave them an excuse not to care for their parents because they had dedicated their resources to another cause using the concept of Corban (that is, “a gift devoted to God”). In doing so they not only didn’t provide for their parents, but also did away with the “Honor your father and mother” commandment and the “anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death” edict (7:10).
Paul elaborated on this point with more specificity in his discussion of widows (those over 60). Before the church was mobilized to help widows in need, the family was to be the first responder: “If a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God” (1 Tim. 5:4). By referring to children and grandchildren, he emphasized the responsibility side of the whole family, not just the children of the aging parents. He emphasized the importance of this principle by further stating, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8).
Another facet of this aspect of caring for our family is its portrayal of help as assistance, not as a means of creating dependency but as a means of supporting the ability of the aging parents to take care of themselves. In the qualifications section of the passage (1 Tim. 5:9-10), besides being over 60, the elderly widow was to have a track record of being devoted to good deeds – bringing up children, showing hospitality, caring for others and helping those in trouble. In order to keep their priorities straight in the event that assistance was not forthcoming, the elderly widow was exhorted to hope in God, to continue to pray night and day, and to ask God for help (1 Tim. 5:5; Lk. 2:36-38). This is a good list for how retired/aging persons can use their time by carrying one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2) and putting the needs of others before their own needs (Phil. 2:3-4).
Family Caring Nurtures Both Ways
The fact that “children’s children” are referred to as a “crown to the aged” (Prov. 17:6) raises one of the distinct benefits and joys of the aging stage of family life – grandchildren. It is not unusual that grandchildren are mentioned as caregivers in the discussion of families caring for their own (1 Tim. 5:4), since there is often a special bond between grandparents and grandchildren that transcends the generation gap and bridges any rifts in relationships between parents and their own children. Grandparenting is usually a task of aging that is engaged in with relish and enthusiasm. As many grandparents so aptly observe, “You can spoil your grandchildren and then send them back to their parents to deal with the repercussions.” Grandparents have the latitude of being part-time lovers, garnering all the joys of spending time with grandchildren without having all the responsibilities of parenting them. Activities such as babysitting and taking grandchildren on outings, adventures and vacations provide opportunities to bond that have a long-term impact. Grandparents can tell family stories, emphasize family values (legacy) and teach basic skills that have domestic and recreational value. Children often respond to the direction of grandparents because they perceive the input as fun and enjoyment rather than discipline and work. Once this vital connection is established, grandchildren become a resource to their grandparents when the need arises and do so with the same kind of enthusiasm and dedication that they experienced from their grandparents while growing up.
By James Trotzer
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org