Why is it that we heap scorn on "deadbeat" parents who fail to take care of underage children, but excuse adult children who don't take care of their feeble parents?

Perhaps it's because caring for children—no matter how many diapers and scrapes must be tended to—is a joyful experience, while aging involves untold sadness and indignity.

Maybe it has something to do with our unwillingness to confront death. We use euphemisms (e.g., "passing on") to avoid acknowledging the finality of our physical life. We are bombarded with ads purporting to show us that popping this pill will alleviate all age-related joint problems while this financial plan will enable us to ride horses and climb mountains into our silver-haired twilights. The ads sell a hope of mobility and freedom against the certainty of bodily decay.

The media trumpet our expanded life spans (now over 78 years, from 47 a century ago) and healthier retirements (we expect to beat cancer, pneumonia, and the effects of diabetes—diseases that meant certain death for our ancestors). Yet we face longer periods of incapacitation than our predecessors could have dreamed of.

With the looming geriatric society come problems. Social Security and Medicare costs are soaring, private pensions are collapsing, and quality nursing homes and geriatric health-care workers are in short supply.

The generations handling care for dying parents are facing something their ancestors never did. They're part of smaller and less-stable extended families. They're less likely to live near their parents—sometimes they are thousands of miles away. And the amount of time spent caring for elderly family members can extend from a few tough years to many difficult decades. Even the strongest families will be stretched to the limit when attempting to fulfill the commandment to honor one's parents. So what do you do?

You take care of your parents.

It's never been easy. There's a reason the psalmist cries, "Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone." Old age is almost always a time of physical and mental deterioration, of pain and loss, of fear and loneliness. Watching parents become chronically ill or senile is unbearably painful for their adult children.

The amount of time spent caring for elderly family members can extend to many difficult decades. So what do you do? You take care of your parents.

Christians should think scripturally when facing this troubling time:

  • Stop using language that avoids and denies death. The secular world has no answers beyond the temporal, so it seeks to move death out of view—into thick-walled hospitals and under the care of professional doctors, nurses, and funeral directors. The Christian knows that death is part of life's journey. As we "walk through the valley of the shadow of death," Christ has promised his presence to comfort our fear.
  • If your parents are Christians, help them plan their funeral so that it's the clearest possible testimony to Christ's crucifixion, resurrection, and return. What's more important: that the people gathered learn about that time your dad took you camping and told a good joke, or about the forgiveness of sins?
  • Make sure your parents have simple prayers for comfort during painful and difficult deaths. One pastor reported that a parishioner facing lung cancer prayed, over and over, "Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy." Another person learned Psalm 23 so well that it became part of her vocabulary; she could go to it even when it was difficult to concentrate on other things.
  • Keep in mind the value of the individual. Christians believe that our worth begins in the womb, and doesn't end until we are cradled to our Father's bosom. When so many people determine worth based on what you can do or contribute, it becomes easy to disregard the elderly as useless. But it is our Father in heaven who determines who is worthy. One's identity isn't changed by illness.

Ultimately, caring for parents reminds us that the commandment to honor and love our elders never expires, giving us an opportunity to love others as Christ has loved us.

One friend recalled having to bathe his grandfather. "Being a typical self-absorbed college student, I wasn't thrilled about the prospect," he said. But he quickly became mindful of Christ's humility and service toward us.

"This was nothing compared to what Jesus had done for me—this was nothing compared to what my parents and grandparents had done for me. This was my vocation as son and grandson," he said.

It's our vocation, too.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous columns by Mollie Ziegler Hemingway include:

Civil Religion's Sharper Teeth | All believers welcome, so long as they aren't religious. (April 27, 2009)
California's Temper Tantrum | How the gay rights movement lost more than Proposition 8. (March 5, 2009)
In Over His Pay Grade | When science is made 'apolitical' and 'unencumbered by religion,' it's usually to hyper-politicize and hyper-sacralize it. (March 23, 2009)

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Throwing Inkwells
Mollie Ziegler Hemingway is a contributor to GetReligion.org, an editor at Ricochet.com, and a frequent writer for Christianity Today and a number of other outlets. A committed Lutheran, her column ran from 2009 to 2011.
Previous Throwing Inkwells Columns:

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