As the number of older adults balloons in the US, the statistics are staggering:
- 12% of Americans (34 million) are providing care for an adult over the age of 50 (Pew Research).
- The economic value of unpaid caregiving exceeds the value of paid home care and Medicaid spending combined ($470 billion in 2013; Family Caregiver Alliance).
- An estimated 3 trillion dollars of wages are forfeited because of caregiving responsibilities (MetLife Study).
If you are represented by one of these statistics, you know the demands of elder caregiving, but be encouraged: you are involved in something very near and dear to God’s heart. The Bible brims with motivation and instruction for compassionate elder care. “Honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12), Jesus’s provision for his mother even while hanging on the cross (John 19:26), and Paul’s emphasis on family caregiving responsibility (1 Timothy 5:8) all reveal God’s tender compassion toward those running their last lap.
But what does compassionate care look like on a practical level?
Well, it looks like—soup. Yes, chicken soup. Bone in thighs, rendered savory with salt, pepper, turmeric, a bay leaf. Fresh celery, carrots, cabbage, potatoes, squash and broccoli. Deliver it to her bedroom on that wooden tray—the one Granddad picked up when traveling overseas. Serve it in her wedding china—yep, those bowls you were never allowed to touch growing up! Not too hot, with crackers and some fresh juice and a flower picked from the hedge decorating the tray. Be sure the curtains are flung open and the clutter is picked up.
Next, the sheets. A bad mattress or dirty, wrinkled sheets are bedsores waiting to happen. Nothing feels finer than crisp, clean sheets after a bed bath. But watch your back! Gently rolling your loved one side-to-side lets you remove the dirty and put on the clean. Can you give a bed bath? A bowl of warm water, lots of towels, start at the top, keep them covered to stave off the chill. Remember the creases (baby powder afterwards), ears, nose and toes! The contented comfort of that bit of exercise and massaging (especially legs and feet long out of use) will help them rest more easily. And hydration! Be generous with the fluids. Yes, it means changing the diapers more frequently, but a UTI at that age really throws them for a loop.
The TV is fine occasionally, but try turning it off and being creative. It may take a bit of searching, but when you locate the old picture albums, you’ve found a real treasure. Prop her up in bed (remember a pillow under the back of the knees to relieve pressure from the back) and go slowly. “I remember that old car! Oh, and there’s Jane on the swing set.” Now may be just the time to read from the Bible—would she be up for some read-aloud?
Old friends, grandchildren, and church friends can be such a help in the bedridden days. Especially those who shine with the Son’s brightness. Offer mercy with cheerfulness—this is Paul’s sage advice in Romans 12:8. The laugh of an old friend with their bundle of stories will soften the loneliness and pain.
The Challenges and Rewards of Caregiving
Does all this sound a bit unrealistic? It certainly is flavored with an “old-fashioned” wisdom. Edith Schaeffer’s delightful book, What is a Family? has offered me much encouragement and insight in my own caregiving years. There she speaks of home-nursing skills passed down through generations with tenderness and compassion, learned hands-on. She puts it like this: “A family is a well-regulated hospital, a nursing home, a shelter in time of physical need.”
Compassionate care for the aging is never convenient. None of us knew we would be setting aside time for the stroke, the fall, or the dementia. Yes, the distance is daunting. The finances are limited. Life’s bandwidth is too full. You also have your own life, your own kids, and your own commitments. I get it.
But remember, your service to your elderly loved one is service to Jesus himself: “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:40 ESV). Also consider his words from Matthew 7:12: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
Compassionate care for the elderly isn’t just a one-way street—we can benefit greatly from the life experiences and wisdom of those we serve. As J.I. Packer says in Finishing Our Course with Joy: Guidance from God for Engaging with Our Aging, “Some grow old gracefully, meaning, fully in the grip of the grace of God. Increasingly they display a well-developed understanding with a well-formed character: firm, resilient, and unyielding, with an unfailing sense of proportion and abundant resources for upholding and mentoring others.” There is much to be gained from close interaction with our loved ones who are running their last lap faithfully. Many a harried, shallow child, or unruly, unmanageable grandchild has learned empathy, humility, and a few much-needed manners while serving an aging family member.
Embrace the Opportunity to Serve
Will you step up to the opportunity to care for an aging loved one? Maybe it’s not soup or bedpans, but perhaps it’s a daily phone call or a handwritten note with paintings from grandkids or nieces and nephews. Maybe it’s helping get the car fixed or protecting them from scammers. Goodness, kindness, compassion, and mercy are God’s attributes on display toward us in Christ. Let’s seek to better reflect these life-giving graces to our elderly loved ones who are too often overlooked.
CARING FOR AN AGING PARENT: HONORING AS YOU SERVE
Caring for aging parents is complex and challenging even under the best of circumstances. How do we help them and remain sane when distance, dementia, depression, disaster, divorce, disintegrated relationships, deteriorating health, and discouragement set in?