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Caring for Aging Parents

The Situation 

Did you know we live in a rapidly aging world? In fact, in the United States the fastest growing age populations are those 80 and older. As a result, we now have the “Sandwich Generation.” The Sandwich Generation are those in their 40s all the way to those in their 70s who find themselves still parenting while caring for aging parents and relatives. That was the case for my sisters and I until the Lord took our parents home.  Perhaps that has been your experience or is presently your experience.

The process of aging brings challenges and losses that can bear down on people like the hot sun. The heat could be sickness, loss of faculties, a conflict with adult children, ageism or the loss of a spouse. And the heat of life will bring to light where our aging relatives place their hope. Jeremiah 17:5-6 states that we are rooted either in a trust of man or trust in God. For our aging relatives, the losses they experience become an insightful laboratory to help identify where their hope is rooted.

The reactions of our counselees, as well as our own, to this heat in life will help us as their counselors to see where idolatries are present— Is trust placed in a doctor or the Great Physician? When losses produce anger or depression, what is it that has turned them away from thanksgiving and contentment? Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:8 gives a bleak picture of this heat that comes as we near the end of life. 

The “heat of life” that comes with aging can include:

An increasing awareness of mortality.
The onset of debilitating disease, terminal diseases, diseases that affect the mind, and diseases that may linger through the longer years we experience.
Loneliness in singleness following the death of a spouse.
Regrets amplified by diminishing time to resolve problems.
Loss of income (especially for those 90+).
Loss of acuity of the senses (hearing, sight, feeling, taste, smell).
Loss of strength and abilities.
Loss of mobility.
Loss of independence.
Changes in the world (often accompanied by a desire to return to a romanticized view of the past, “the good old days”).
Fears. (“What will happen if I get Alzheimer’s or dementia?” “What if my lost loved ones die without Christ?” “Will I have to endure suffering for a long time?”)

The ruinous effects of the Fall are seen in our aging relatives and in our own aging bodies! However, such losses are temporary for those whose hope is in the Lord. We can’t, nor should we, read Ecclesiastes 11 and 12 without the knowledge that Christ has come and conquered sin and death.

One cold February day I traveled down Rt. 26 from Lafayette to Kokomo, Indiana to visit with my father. He would shortly leave to meet with his oncologist and anticipated the possibility of bad news. He wanted to share with me from his Bible reading that morning:

“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39

Formerly unseen tears were streaming down this face I had known for 4 decades. He expressed a confidence in Christ that welled up within his soul. Incidentally, the news was good that day, but the doctor was wrong. A little over a year later his body joined the dust of the earth, but he entered the presence of his loving God.

The psalmist (certainly aware of the losses of aging) wrote:

“The righteous flourish like the palm tree
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the Lord;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
They still bear fruit in old age;
they are ever full of sap and green,
to declare that the Lord is upright;
he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.”
Psalm 92:12-15

Our desire is to come alongside our aging parents, aunts, uncles, friends to help them to bear fruit, to be ever full of sap and green. Not so they can experience their best life now! Rather, so they can point to a glorious Savior who is upright and unmovable.

Biblical Guidance

Art was my Sunday School teacher, High School teacher, and later in life a friend and fellow pastor. I once asked him what Scriptures sustained him in these later years. Without hesitation he said, “All the verses that sustained me in my younger years.” That was really refreshing! As we consider helping our aging relatives, let us keep these  foundational Scriptures in mind.

“And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.’” Matthew 22:39-40

“And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” 1 Thessalonians 5:14

“Love is patient and kind.” 1 Corinthians 13:4

These passages are relevant regardless of whether we counsel a 9-year-old or a 90-year-old. A love that cares and confronts with patience, kindness, and humility should always characterize our counsel. Over the years I’ve noticed that many families caring for aging relatives struggle particularly in the area of loving with the patience and kindness that is required when bodies respond more slowly (my kids tell me I’m driving slower now!), and decisions reflect a diminishing mental acuity. This is going to require taking the time to listen well (Proverbs 18:13).

How can you show patience and kindness? Start by adjusting your expectations of them to fit their pace of life. Consider the losses (see list above) that are particularly impacting them in their daily lives. Buy them a large-print Bible and read it with them. Take time to listen and seek to understand the logic of why they are doing what they are doing. Present them with biblical truth when confronting wrong behavior with grace and forbearance.

Another way to express care is by asking questions about their life. What were their greatest joys in life? What were their greatest disappointments in life? Where did they find the most hope? What would they want you to know? The answers to these questions will give you an understanding of their relationship with Christ and an understanding of the truths from Scripture with which they need to be challenged or by which they may be encouraged.

All of this requires thoughtfulness. With renewed minds (Romans 12:1-2) we can worship God by our obedience to Him to outdo one another in showing honor (Romans 12:9). Beloved, let us take on this assignment with genuine love and a desire to outdo our aging family member with honor. Have the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:1-11) as you consider the losses they are experiencing now, and joyfully turn them to the encouragement of worshipping Christ in resurrected bodies with minds that are clear (no Alzheimers!) and bodies that are whole (no arthritis!).

As you walk with those for whom “the evil days” (Ecclesiastes 12:1) have arrived, you may be (probably will be?) tempted toward impatience and a lack of understanding. Pray for wisdom (God promises to be generous in this provision, James 1:5), practice biblical love, and rest assured that this too is God’s means for sanctifying you—and He is faithful to accomplish it (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).

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Jim Koerber
Jim Koerber is an elder at Grace Covenant Church in Beavercreek, OH and a Fellow with ACBC. He frequently teaches and lectures on biblical counseling at churches, conferences, and training organizations.
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