Honoring Our Parents According to God’s Will, Part 2: Discerning the Needs of Elderly Parents
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This is the second in a three-part essay examining how Christians ought to care for their aging parents. In this second part, the author reflects on the particular needs of elderly parents. Read the first portion here and check back next week to read the final post.
This article has been translated and republished with permission. If you read Mandarin, you can access the original article here.
2. The Needs of Elderly Parents and the Responsibilities of Children
Growing old is a natural life process. When a person enters this stage of life, he will have some needs that correspond to his age. As we deal with the needs of our elderly parents, there are two things that first require our attention.
On the one hand, we need to know that we are not required to satisfy all the wishes of our parents because sometimes their desires stem from both the customs of this corrupt world and their flesh. Some wishes are not practical, and we cannot and should not fulfill them (for example, many parents equate filial piety with their children buying a large house in Beijing or bringing honor to their ancestors by becoming a high-ranking government official). Thus, there are times when the Bible is needed to discern which needs are objective and reasonable and which ones are unrealistic wishes; which needs are consistent with scripture and which ones proceed from the flesh and will of man; which needs should be provided for by children and which ones ought to be rejected.
On the other hand, we ought to actively think about and examine the real needs of our elderly parents. Because growing old is a gradual process, if we do not diligently pay attention, we can easily fail to detect their needs. Elderly parents often do not bring up their needs of their own volition but most often choose to remain silent. Thus, we need to think carefully about their needs and look for them so that we do not neglect our responsibility as children. There are many aspects to the needs of elderly parents and to the corresponding responsibilities of children. In order to think and communicate more carefully about these things, we will consider them from three perspectives: body, heart, and soul.
It is the body that first feels the effects of aging, and this will manifest itself in two different ways to varying degrees. On the one hand, the elderly will experience some bodily inconveniences as they naturally age. On the other hand, they will gradually experience various illnesses as they grow older. The end of the Book of Ecclesiastes contains an apt description of aging: "In the day when the keepers of the house tremble" – hands tremble and grasp objects less firmly; "and the strong men are bent" – one’s knees and back can no longer straighten themselves; "and the grinders cease because they are few" – teeth start to become loose and fall out; "and those who look through the windows are dimmed" – eyesight grows dim; "and the doors on the street are shut – when the sound of grinding is low" – one becomes hard of hearing; "and one rises up at the sound of a bird" – one gets less sleep; "and all the daughters of song are brought low" – one’s voice becomes frail. All these changes in the body mean that the elderly can no longer accomplish many things that young people can easily do, and they frequently need help from others.
Because our parents have grown old, they may move slower. Compared to young people, they may be several times slower at walking, getting in and out of vehicles, buying groceries, paying money, and so on. Their children, therefore, need greater patience and tolerance. Because they are not very mobile, they are very cautious when they walk down the street, and they need their children’s help to try to reduce the number of obstacles they encounter. Children may need to reduce the amount of noise around them because they cannot sleep well. They may not hear well, requiring their children to yell when speaking. Children should also not be perplexed or angry about their parents sometimes not responding to them. Elderly parents may repeat themselves over and over again because their memory is failing, requiring children to bear with them and show understanding in love. They may be weaker when sick than the average sick person, requiring their children to show greater care for them and to spend more time and energy being with them.
God created man with a physical body, and this body has dignity(1 Thess. 4:4). It is very important for children to be physically present with their elderly parents while taking care of them. We can see some examples from the ministry of the Lord Jesus. He has the power of the Creator. "He spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm." He can easily heal with a word, yet he often touched the sick with his hands. For example, when the unclean leper came and bowed down to plead with Jesus to heal him, Jesus reached out his hand and touched him(Lk. 5:13). When he approached the dead daughter of Jairus, Jesus took her hand, and after raising her from the dead with a word, he did not forget to command others to give her food (Lk. 8:54-55). When we meditate on these actions of our Lord, we are often touched by the gentleness and mercy that the Lord shows to his people. Even when the Lord Jesus was nailed to the cross and was suffering and bleeding, he did not forget to entrust his mother to the care of his disciple.
When confronted with the physical needs of their elderly parents, children often comfort themselves with the words of their parents: “It is the intention that matters.” But their parents say these words because they do not want to trouble their children. We must know that money, gifts, and words can never truly replace personal relationships, and within personal relationships, the body is quite important. Everyone assigns varying degrees of importance and urgency to things. Because elderly people generally keep their own problems to themselves, busy children often intentionally or unintentionally neglect them.
Those who believe in God also easily neglect their parents, and they might even have a hidden sin of downplaying the responsibility of caring for their parents for the sake of ministry. Even though there really are circumstances in which Christians, facing many needs in the church and among souls, are forced to temporarily give up some things before God, we must examine whether our motives are pure. Are we just evading the trouble of serving our parents? Are we neglecting the command that God has given to us for the sake of doing those things which we enjoy or which we deem to be important and more fruitful?
Compared to physical care, the elderly have a greater need for emotional and psychological care. They need respect, understanding, comfort, and empathy. Because the elderly are no longer working and cannot do many things, they often feel as though they have lost personal value, which leads to feelings of loneliness and rejection. The report mentioned earlier about elderly suicide in villages says, “The elderly who commit suicide worked hard when they were young, providing their children with houses, helping them find spouses, and taking care of their children’s children. When they complete their ‘life mission’ and are no longer able to labor, the amount of emotional and physical care they receive in return is pitiful. When their value is depleted, they feel as though they are good for nothing and that there is nothing more to do but wait to die.” The vast majority of elderly people who choose to commit suicide do so because they feel this sense of rejection and of having no value. Even though many elderly people in the cities might have greater financial security, it is easy for them to slip into a deep sense of loneliness because their children cannot easily be with them due to their busy work schedules. In a top-rated public nursing home in Beijing, elderly people must have a certain social status to be able to live there. Two people reside in one room the size of a standard hotel room carefully chosen for them while their children are often overseas or extremely busy. Even though they receive constant care from medical professionals and an on-sight hospital, their lives are quite monotonous and lonely. Because the elderly are physically frail, they may be more emotionally sensitive and weak. Thus, Paul specifically commands Timothy not to "rebuke the elderly" (1 Tim. 5:1) because the elderly need genuine respect and understanding from their children, as well as their merciful company.
In their attitudes toward parents, what children most need are respect, empathy, and understanding. “Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old” (Prov. 23:22). Why does the Bible teach us to do this? Due to various factors of aging, elderly parents will learn more slowly and will be a bit “backward” in their thinking. It is easy for children to become arrogant, especially for Christian children who are dealing with unbelieving parents. Elderly parents have their own upbringing and concerns. We ought not to rebuke them about matters that are not generally harmful. For example, we do not have to change their views about eating leftovers. Even in giving advice, we should speak in a tone of love and respect rather than of criticism and scorn.
Moreover, elderly parents need a pair of listening ears and an understanding heart. This means children need to make time to listen to the needs of their hearts. Why is it that the elderly are so easily tricked into buying healthcare products? The reason is that these salesmen are willing to spend time and energy accompanying them so that sometimes the elderly will buy the product even though they know they are being deceived. All the while their children do not make the effort to accompany them. Sometimes when the two are even in the same room, their children will be playing on their phones with their heads down. The parents truly want to interact with their children but seldom have any real interaction with them.
Some children dislike hearing about the past from their parents because everything then was old-fashioned. They discredit their parents’ experiences and the perspective from which they view the world. But if children are willing to listen, they will be able to understand their parents and learn valuable life lessons from their experiences.And as they listen, believing children will have more opportunities to explain God’s word to them in the midst of their circumstances, helping them to better understand the will of God and his kingdom, which he gives us through Jesus Christ and which will one day be consummated. This will help them not to be stuck relishing the past but to wait in hope for the kingdom of God.
However, according to the Bible, the need that is more important than those of both the body and the heart is the need of the salvation of the soul. For this does not only concern this life but influences eternity. From the perspective of time and health, the elderly are nearer to the end of their lives than younger individuals, and thus they face the final judgment after death with greater seriousness. In this life, the elderly also fall prey to many sins, such as money, health, and reputation. Some research shows that adultery is very common among the elderly in villages. As for the elderly in the cities, their almost obsessive attention to health has created a vast industry. Who can save elderly parents from these sins, deceit, and the final judgment? Only through the Lord Jesus Christ, only through true faith in him can they be freed from the punishment of hell and from the bondage of these sins.
As for those elderly parents who believe in God, their spirituality also requires special preservation from God so that they may continue to grow in Christ. The psalmist says, "Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent" (Ps. 71.9). When elderly believers face sickness and death, their faith is greatly tested. In The Pilgrim’s Progress, there is a scene where Christian passes through the "River of Death" to the heavenly gates. Even though he has previously experienced many things and bravely triumphed over the snares of many enemies, at this moment he becomes weak and discouraged. And because he remembers the sins he committed in the past, his heart is troubled. He loses hope until he remembers the precious promise in God's word, "I will never forsake you." He is then strengthened to cross the river. Compared with the beginning, the ending of one's life is of greater importance.
As we take care of our parents, even though children can easily spend more of their energy and worry taking care of the physical and emotional needs of their parents, as Christians we ought to pay more attention to our parents’ spiritual well-being. As children who were the first to believe, we are entrusted by God with this responsibility, and we will have to give an account to him. Thus, we ought to improve many aspects of the spiritual environment of our parents to the best of our abilities. For example, parents are generally willing to labor for their children, but we ought to do our best to encourage them in their spiritual pursuits, even if it means sacrificing some of our own conveniences and needs. We can intentionally set aside some time for our parents to actively help them find a suitable church to join. We can take some Bible courses with them, and so on.
As for unbelieving parents, we must earnestly pray for them, asking the Lord to change their hearts. We ought to share the gospel repeatedly with them and in ways that they can understand. We should also bear good witness for the Lord through everyday life at home. As for believing parents, we ought to strengthen their faith and prepare them to inherit the kingdom of God. This not only blesses parents but also children and families.
English translation provided by Moses, Brent, and the China Partnership translation team. Please refer to our reposting guidelines for permission to share on your blog or website.