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Caring for our Elders

Updated: Jul 19, 2022

My mom is now 95 1/2. That "1/2 matters". I was here visiting her in Florida 6 months ago and things have changed since then. Care was essential and time-consuming then, but now it's become vital and all-consuming. She is dependent on her family whom she gave life to and cared for herself, once...years ago. Somehow the years reverse the roles, slowly exchanging the place of who is strong and who is responsible. Not all families can afford facility care, and many don't want to chose that. Either way a family chooses to go, how Christians are to treat their elders is clear.

I Timothy 5:1-4 says:

“…but 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.”

This is a tough concept for the western culture. When our parents hit the age of needing care, we are usually in our late 40’s, 50’s, or 60's and are needing to store away our own acorns for the winter of our lives. We are just getting kids through college and are paying for the weddings of our daughters and beginning to have grandchildren. Vacations to Hawaii are almost possible now. So now I need to put my religion into practice in this sacrificial way? Haven't I already been sacrificing for quite awhile as an adult?

My "vacations” over the past few years have meant trips like flying out of Alaska in 2011 when my dad in Florida needed to have his leg amputated. Again when he contracted MRSA and needed extra care at home. Again when he died in 2012, and we honored and buried him, and Mom needed all her children by her side. Again for a visit to Mom when my sister needed a break from the constant demands of being a caregiver.

In September of 2014 I went a bit further, and brought Mom home with me to Alaska. Traveling across the country – the continent, really—is a tough thing to do in one day when you’re any age, but it’s really a challenge when you’re 88 and using a walker. (Even worse is traveling the day after some nut decides to set the Chicago control tower on fire and all your flights are changed and delayed). But Mom persevered through that. She trusted me to get her from Tampa to Anchorage in one day. She was absolutely dependent on me. Roles were reversed, and I was now the responsible adult getting her every step of the way. It was hard for both of us, but we made it after 21 hours, and crashed into bed. As I drifted off to sleep, I thought “what in the world have I done?!” This little lady is completely dependent on ME! She is frail! She is forgetful! She is nervous! And boy, can she talk about the same stuff over and over!

The first two weeks were an adjustment period for both of us. After the adjustment period, though, I re-framed the situation and my strategy. We baked together and licked batter off the spoons. We began a secret project for Christmas to give to loved ones. We ran errands together. We had family dinner night with all the “kids” (grown, young adults in our family circle who came on Mondays); but making this all come together required a lot of selflessness.

I saw this sort of selflessness lived out in Illinois when I entered the Ford family back in the late '80s. My mother-in-law, Anna, was working full time. Her own mother-in-law lived with them for years, but Great-Grandma Ford became too frail to live at home anymore and went to the nearest nursing home. THREE times a day Anna went to feed her mother-in-law. She went before work, on her lunch hour, and immediately after work. She pureed the food, and fed her gently while having to talk at a volume that surely was heard throughout the entire facility, just so Grandma could communicate with a loved one. Anna could have gotten away with a weekly visit to Grandma Ford, but she went at least 21 times a week. THAT was Christian love in action. THAT was putting her religion into practice. THAT was hard and sacrificial.

Fellow believers, we too may need to care for our own at home or assist in caring for our own when they are in some sort of facility. We need to look to the scripture and know that as long as we are able, we need to be prepared to care for our own family members, and consider how to repay our elders for the care they gave to us. It’s a reality of life, and a directive in scripture that cannot be ignored. It’s putting our “religion” into practice.

To continue my story, my mother lasted 90 days at my house and wanted to go back to Florida for the holidays, so I ended up returning her to her home. Since then I have tried to visit every 3-6 months. It's now 2021, 7 years after she came to Alaska for the last time. At this point, I could never transfer her back to Alaska. In January of 2018 she fell and broke her hip, which drastically altered her abilities and her mental functioning. It is clear she needs to be right where she is.

I am thankful for my sister who has been living with my mother and caring for her since 2015. I am here filling in for her while she takes a much-needed and well-deserved mini vacation with another friend who is also a full-time caregiver. How they live this life is a marvel to me. I live thousands of miles away, so my entering into this looks different than a short daily visit or some kind of weekly schedule, but is rather an approach that works for our long-distance situation. I send money on a monthly basis, I call frequently--to both my sister and my mother--and plan my vacations to include an entering in to life here with mom as much as possible. Intentionally problem-solving and debriefing with my sister who is the primary caregiver is another way to help. We certainly have moments where we think differently and would make a different choice than the other, but we consider this a joint effort even though she takes on much more of the hands-on work. I try to remember to thank her whenever possible for all that she does, and I seek to encourage her in persevering with her calling to be a caregiver. And, of course, I pray for her to have patience. It is a season...granted, a long one.

For those who are not currently care-giving, thank you for reading. Know that your encouragement and prayers matter and mean so much. Sometimes the caregiver and the one being cared for have their world become very "small"...and very routine. Any encouragement, assistance, or visit is greatly appreciated. A phone call or a card are both very meaningful ways to enter in if unable to visit in-person.

I write this all in a reflective way...not in a lecturing tone. I want to 'see' those who feel unseen. I want to encourage those who are weary from the daily routine of caregiving. I want to inspire us all toward love and good deeds to one another...toward those we know who give care to others, toward those who are needing to be cared for at this stage in their life, and especially for those who have been in either role for years. May God grant you everything you need to press on and love those who require constant assistance. Whatever we do "unto the least of these" we do as unto our beloved Savior.

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