Retirement homes and assisted living are big issues facing families. Today’s question comes to us anonymously, as do many of our questions. “Dear Pastor John, what does the Bible say about retirement homes? Don’t we as children have the responsibility to directly look after and provide for our parents in old age? How do retirement homes fit, or not fit, into this calling?”
Even though the issue of how we care for our aging parents is not addressed specifically in the Bible (I mean the details of how to do it are not addressed), I think we have enough pointers in God’s word so that any Christian child with aging parents who is deeply formed by the Scriptures and eager to magnify Christ by his behavior (and those are two huge assumptions) can find help.
There aren’t many people like that in the world. There are not many who lean very strongly toward a close and caring relationship with his parents or her parents.
Living for Others
Let me mention some texts that deal with a couple of practical issues. Philippians 2:3–8 is one of the most transforming passages in the Bible if it takes root in our lives. It stresses becoming a kind of person who is oriented on what others need, not just on our private desires.
“One way of honoring your parents is to love them as you love yourself.”
This is the great issue of life. Would we be selfish or would we be servants? The beautiful life, the Christ-honoring, Christlike life, is the life of serving others — not ignoring others or using others while we just go about our self-satisfied way. Here’s the text: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others” — Now, that would include parents — “more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3–4). That includes aging parents.
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:5–7). He stoops from being the king of the universe to being a servant, being born in the likeness of men, being found in human form. He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross.
That is one of the most convicting, one of the most beautiful, one of the most transforming texts in the Bible. The great mark of the Christian, Paul says to the adult Christian child, is that they look not just to their interests in midlife as their careers reach their capstone. They look towards the interests of others, including aging parents. They count others, like their parents, as more significant than themselves.
They don’t sit atop some pinnacle of privilege, but like Jesus, they come down to where the need is and serve even on to death. There’s a basic principle and a call in it.
Love Your Parents
Now, Jesus linked that love command with parents by putting them side by side in Matthew 19:19. He said, “Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” One way of honoring your parents is to love them as you love yourself. That is, if you would hope to be helped in your aging need, then help your parents.
One of the most beautiful examples of this — and it’s very inspiring, so I’ll mention it — is John 19:26. Despite Jesus’s unspeakable sufferings on the cross, he did exactly what Paul said; namely, he looked not to his own interests or his own pain. He looked to his mother’s. He was the eldest son of Mary. Joseph, evidently, was gone now. He never shows up after his initial appearance in the Gospels.
Custom would dictate that the firstborn takes special responsibility for his mom in her old age. He looks down from the cross and says to his mother, “Woman, behold your son,” and then he said to his disciple, “Behold your mother.” And “from that hour, the disciple took her to his own home” (John 19:26–27).
The Call to Care
Sometimes ministry — like dying for God, in this case — will keep us from being as closely involved with our parents as we might like. We will be very diligent not to neglect them but make sure they’re cared for. First Timothy 5:4 is probably the most to-the-point text in the Bible. It says, “If a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God.”
“Are we ready to make sacrifices for our parents? Or are we resentful that they are a burden? That’s the real test.”
Now, the context is whether the church or the family should care for widows, and Paul says that the church should care for real widows — that is, those who don’t have a family, implying that the first and foremost responsibility is for the families to care for widows. Then he gives three motives. Let me just mention them.
He says, “Show godliness.” In other words, caring for the parent is a Godward act. It’s not just social welfare. This is part of what God is working in his people.
“Make some return to their parents.” In other words, it’s right and good for children to look back on all the years of what their parents gave to them. Ten thousand needs were met in their early years by the parents. They should look back and feel some sense of indebtedness to them.
“For this is pleasing in the sight of God.” We’re told plainly, God delights in this. He’s pleased when children care for their aging parents. The main issue is if the heart of the children is a selfish heart or a servant heart.
Are we ready to make sacrifices for our parents? Or are we resentful that they are becoming a burden? That’s the real test. All of this may or may not mean that the parents come to live with us or near us. There are innumerable variables that make one situation right for one family and another situation right for another. Here’s just one tiny illustration.
My father finally needed more care than he could living by himself. He had been married to my mother; then she died. Then he was married another 25 years, and she died. Now, he’s a widower. Now, he can’t live alone anymore.
He’s too forgetful. He can’t find his way home in the car anymore. Now, I’m a thousand miles away. He was in Greenville, South Carolina; I’m here in Minneapolis. I have a sister nearby, but none of us is right there. Now, Noël and I discussed what it would mean to have him live with us.
We looked where the bathroom is on the first floor. We saw the room we used for a study. We thought, “Now, that could be made a bedroom. It has immediate access to the bathroom. He wouldn’t have to climb any steps.” Are we willing? We are willing. I said to my father, “Daddy, we would be happy for you to spend your last days with us.” He wouldn’t do it. He didn’t want to leave the South. He didn’t like the weather. He didn’t want to leave his friends. He thought Beverly, my sister, was nearby. There was a nursing home that was operated by the university that he graduated from. He had all these reasons why it was not a good idea to come live with his son.
I thought, “Well, okay.” That’s the way he was. He was not that closely tied, and so he spent his last years in a nursing home. Beverly visited him often, and I got down there as often as I could. As his memory faded away, he seemed quite happy in that place.
Again, the main issue for the Christian child of aging parents is not the precise circumstances. The main issue is, are we servants or are we selfish? Are we ready to sacrifice and trust God with the joy to meet every need?