Hope For Caregivers Of The Elderly
by Holly Drew
My parents died several years ago. My mother died when I was a new Christian and my father followed her four years later. During the last few years of my dad’s life, I was responsible for much of his care. He suffered from senile dementia, a condition marked by severe deterioration of mental functions. This was more difficult than I had ever imagined. I struggled with my new and demanding responsibilities. He struggled with the losses that he was experiencing. I loved him very much and wanted to help, but I didn’t know how best to care for him. I am sad that I didn’t do better and sometimes think how much more effective I would have been had I been more prepared with sound, biblical wisdom and instruction. It’s from the perspective of having already walked through many difficulties that I am writing this chapter to you.
So that I can offer the best help possible, I’m going to share honestly about my struggles. Sometimes the simple knowledge that your response to your predicament is “normal” will help more than anything else. What upset me most during the long months of caring for my dad was how angry and impatient I would get with him. Although I knew that he couldn’t help what was happening to him, I found myself scolding him or insisting on doing things for him that he wanted to do himself. I became angry when he needed attention while I was busy doing something else. I was also worried about the money—it was expensive to care for him and his life savings were dwindling away. I was tortured by questions about what I would do if his money ran out. Would I have to use my own money? What would become of him? What was I going to do? How long was this going to continue? Would I be able to endure all the way to the end with him? Not knowing the answers made me fearful.
My hope is that neither of my parents suffered because of my ignorance. I know now that the Lord orchestrated our circumstances. He has used these difficulties in my life to help others who are going through what I faced. And He taught me the importance of a biblical approach to caregiving.
As I said earlier, Dad passed away after four years of debilitating deterioration. Years have since passed, and by God’s grace, I have grown in the Lord. I now know that the way I responded during those years was not simply on account of the difficult circumstances surrounding my father’s decline. My fear, anger, and impatience were the fruit of sin that already resided in my heart. Though I misunderstood my responsibilities and how to perform them, I also possessed pride and unbelief in the midst of the situation, which produced all kinds of evil responses. Most of all, I was unaware of the help that God had already supplied in the Bible. I misunderstood the love of the Lord and His perfect, sovereign plan for His children. I didn’t know how His truth could lift up a heart burdened with trouble. In the Old Testament, God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah and said, “‘I know the plans I have for you…plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope’” (Jeremiah 29:11 nasb). I have grown to learn that help comes from Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God and the fellowship of believers.
I assume you are looking into this chapter because the clouds of old age are somehow darkening your day. Perhaps even now you need guidance on your eldercare journey. This stage of life is a great blessing when viewed in the way God wants you to see it. Eldercare is a very important calling, and even a privilege. In caring for aging loved ones, you become, in effect, an integral part of the process of ushering these dear ones into heaven and trusting the Lord to complete what He has begun. “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). In addition, the circumstances you face will become a blessing to you as they propel you closer to Christ. His abundant, sacrificial love and care will serve as your refuge from whatever guilt or strain you experience in caregiving. So, let’s look at aging and eldercare as the Bible speaks of it: the honor of it, the hope in it, and the humility required for it.
Hope When Storm Clouds Loom
God honors the elderly, and He has made it very clear who is to care for them. Again, all children (no matter what their age) are to honor their father and mother. We honor them by being willing to care for them when their authority over us is waning. When Paul gave Timothy instructions about his oversight of the church, he wrote,
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 (1 Timothy 5:4).
That passage emphasizes that it is a first priority to care for the needs of one’s own family. Jesus affirmed this when He accused the Jewish leaders of disobeying God’s command to care for their parents by designating their money for other “more religious” purposes (Matthew 15:3-9). Our hope in caring for our parents is that God will help us and give us grace to do what He has commanded us to do. He promises He will give you the strength you need for eldercare: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10-11).
Honor toward parents is commanded in Scripture. But what does such honor look like? Honor is shown to a deserving person through special treatment, attention, and cooperation. It is to treat someone with deep respect and a sense of worth or excellence. Honor in the form of caregiving is more than just a kind gesture. It is a debt owed to those who have sacrificed for, nurtured, and taught us. Many of them have spent a lifetime working and caring for our well-being. So honor is not only an expression of godliness, but one of obedience, an obedience that is pleasing to the Lord. It is also an obedience that the Lord Jesus fulfilled flawlessly on the cross as He cared for His mother, Mary, by giving her into the custody of His beloved friend, John. Our hope in caring for our parents or other elderly people is that we can learn from our Lord’s perfect example.
Yes, care for the elderly is God’s expectation. But remember that it is also a great privilege. Because the Lord declares old age to be a good thing, we should consider it an honor to be considered worthy to do eldercare. As Paul wrote, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service” (1 Timothy 1:12 nasb). Perhaps our service isn’t traveling the Mediterranean world preaching the gospel, as Paul did. Perhaps it’s simply caring for an aging loved one. But our hope should be that our wonderful Jesus Christ considers us able to do this service for Him and will fortify us for whatever task is at hand. He is “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20).
The Humility Required of the Caregiver
You may find it challenging to live out the responsibility of caring for an aging parent. Things will likely become very difficult at times. You may say, “I’ve cared for my children; certainly I can do this for my parent!” But over time, even the most willing participant may become perplexed or exhausted. Remember, babies are cute, cuddly little creatures given by God to parents early in marriage—at a time when parents have more energy and vigor. But when the time comes to care for the elderly, things are different. The elderly are wrinkled and spotted, and perhaps even smelly. And we’re faced with caring for them in the afternoon of life, when we ourselves are tired. Changing an infant’s diaper elicits a markedly different response than changing that of a parent. And yet the call to eldercare is every bit as noble and God-honoring as the call to childcare—maybe even more so. God is glorified when we accomplish His will in the difficult tasks we face and we demonstrate that the humble nature of Christ is dwelling within us.
Caring for the elderly may cause you to struggle with unexpected problems:
Crippling diseases will demand extra time for doctor visits, hospital stays, and attention to medications and their side effects.Chronic pain can cause the elderly to experience hopelessness and despair, which often lead to anxiety and depression.Loss of hearing, decreased vision, low stamina, and other effects of old age will require closer attention, more help, and greater patience from you.Elderly people who are chronically helpless may respond by exhibiting combative behaviors such as abusive speech, hitting or throwing things, refusal to cooperate, and the withdrawal of affection.The aged person’s diminishing brain function causes confusion for both the elderly and the caregiver.The care of an aging parent may drain limited resources—theirs or yours.
It is important to remember that ultimately, all the struggles we face are spiritual struggles. Scripture says, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
The battle may be in this world, but ultimately it is spiritual in nature. The difficulties you face are the result of living in a sin-cursed world that is influenced by the evil one, Satan. But the Lord is still in charge of this world, and your circumstances are placed there by Him. You may find comfort in knowing that “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
Seeing the Elderly with New Eyes
It helps to see the elderly through new eyes, or from a different perspective. When children act their age, they are usually treated with patience and understanding, even enjoyment. The elderly also act in ways that reflect their age. They stumble, drop things, need assistance getting dressed, and say curious things. The same kinds of care and security provided and modeled for children are effective with the elderly as well. You must employ patience when your aging parents now act out their true age with its forgetfulness and frailty. Allow aging parents the privilege of being themselves and give them the honor and respect they deserve.
As you endeavor to extend meaningful care to the aged, the following suggestions may prove helpful:
Show compassion. Ask the Lord to help you show compassion. We are givers of care, not just custodians of bodies. Complaints and worries should not be casually dismissed or challenged. Pain is pain, whatever the age of the person who feels it. Gently direct the elderly person to the God of comfort and understanding (see 2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
Listen. The elderly have a contribution to make. Despite their failures, each person has a history with ethics, ideas, and ways of doing things. Their historical perspective is valuable. Attention given to their past experience and continuing contribution is a way to show respect and give them dignity. You can demonstrate care by listening to their feelings, thoughts and experiences. Let them talk without interruption, even if they ramble and you understand very little of what is said. Sometimes the elderly just need someone to listen.
Share. Include the elderly in your world; share about personal activities, family news, and events in the community. Seek their advice. Let them help with problems and decisions as much as they can. Family participation can lift the spirits of the elderly. They usually love children and their presence (in small doses) is refreshment.
Laugh and be joyful. An atmosphere of joy makes life much more pleasant. Sing and play with the elderly. Do not take things too seriously and do not take the elderly too seriously. Remember, no one really knows how it feels to grow old and become senile. When asked, most elderly people will reply with amusement that they feel just as they did at 25 years of age.
Touch. This expression of affection can extend beyond words and may in extreme circumstances become the only way of communicating. Sometimes simply sitting and holding a hand creates the most memorable visit. Gently massage their back. Old bones and muscles often ache. Give a hug and kiss before leaving.
Speak gently. “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Speak to the elderly in a gentle, conversational tone, not a demanding or controlling one. Respect for the elderly is particularly evident in speech. You may find it necessary to explain a situation repeatedly. Exercise patience. Talk with them, not at them. Pick something truly admirable about them and develop a conversation about it. Appreciate them and express it. Show confidence by telling them something they can do rather than repeating what they cannot do. And never say, “I told you so.”
Choose battles wisely. In spite of whatever frustrating circumstances you may encounter, strive to avoid unnecessary conflict. Consider that giving in (as long as it isn’t sinful to do so) may keep peace and joy. Be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (See Ephesians 4:3). Let them live in the past…why not?
Read to them. Give them the comfort of the Psalms. Almost everyone can recite Psalm 23 and find comfort there. Psalm 91 speaks of the secret place of security for the elderly. Psalm 92 encourages fruitfulness in old age. Psalm 131 reveals the secret for attaining a life of composure and peace in the hope of the Lord. You might also read books about heaven to them.
Pray for them and with them. If they’re able, teach them to keep a prayer journal. To the elderly who are frail and nearing death, their constant activity should be directed toward imploring the Lord for His strength and mercy. In addition, the elderly—especially those who are housebound—could be fruitful in the ministry of prayer for friends, family, church members, and missionaries. Help them to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Ministering to the True Needs
In your caregiving, seek to assist, encourage, comfort, and give hope. Work with the elderly in seeing God’s purposes in suffering, helping them to keep a heavenly perspective and to make every attempt to fulfill God’s purposes for their lives—even into old age. The daily details and challenges of eldercare ultimately fade away, and the spiritual issues of life and death are what matter most.
As you guide and help the elderly, point out that growing old and becoming frail is challenging but has a spiritual purpose. As people age and approach the time when they must abandon this life and leave all behind, it is appropriate that frailty and feebleness would overtake them, turning their attention to God’s strength and comfort and their need for salvation. God has made His children frail “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). God is preparing His own to meet Him. This is great reason to “rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16).
Everyone needs to keep a heavenly perspective. Heaven is not merely an imaginary place or a state of mind where everlasting truth and beauty reside. The Bible says that heaven is a real place, a beautiful home for those who love God, prepared just for us by Jesus Christ. To be bound to earthly pursuits and cares is fruitless because “the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17). Life is eternal and people, especially the elderly, must live accordingly. The apostle Paul showed us that in this life we are to live for Jesus, yet there is something much better ahead. He said, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
The Lord desires His own to have their minds set on heaven. Scripture instructs believers to “set [their] minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” because their lives are “hidden with Christ,” who is above (Colossians 3:2-3). To give hope to those nearing death, we must place emphasis on the promise of a future with the Savior who loves us. Christ promised to prepare a place, to come again, and to receive His own so that where He is we may be also. He comforts and assures believers that their hearts need not be troubled (John 14:1-3). He can be trusted!
Trusting God’s Sovereignty
At the time I was caring for my parents, I wish I had known that time alone with the Lord in His Word and in prayer is vital to one’s well-being, especially during trials. Only the Lord is powerful enough to calm troubled hearts and smooth the stumbling places on the paths that we walk. My prayer today is, “Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path” (Psalm 27:11).
I wish I had known and embraced in my heart the magnitude of God’s sovereignty. He oversees every detail of life so carefully with wisdom beyond human understanding. He has overseen the details of this frail person’s life for many years, and He will not stop now. It is not all up to me. Everything is proceeding just as it should, according to His perfect plan for His glory and for my good. Scripture promises that “all things work together for good” for those who love God (Romans 8:28).
Most of all, I wish I had understood the depth and height and breadth of the love of Jesus Christ. It has nothing to do with any worthiness on my part or anything I can do to deserve His love. “He doesn’t love us because of any prior goodness on our part. He loves us because he chooses to love us, and the depth of our defection from him should produce in us great humility, gratitude, and patience with others’ failures.”
Focusing more on God’s love for me than on my circumstances is the key to fulfilling all He would have me do. Standing firm in His love is the only answer for all fear, anger, frustration, and worry.
Find God in His Word. He’s waiting there to comfort, to love, and to walk with you on this sometimes uncertain and lonely path. He will light the way as truly as the sun at daybreak, and even when the sky seems beclouded with storms.
Taken from: Women Counseling Women. Copyright © 2010 by Elyse Fitzpatrick. Published by Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, OR. Used by permission.