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Counseling Families with Aging Relatives

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast one of our own ACBC staff members, Sam Stephens, our Director of Training Center Certification, is sitting down with Jim Koerber. Jim Koerber is the Pastor of Biblical Counseling and Church Planting at Grace Covenant Church in Beavercreek, Ohio. They are a Training Center of ours, and Jim has served for quite some time as a Fellow with ACBC. I think you will enjoy the knowledge that he gives, and this is a very important subject. Especially as we think about in our country, in America, we see a growing number of Baby Boomers getting to an elderly age. As that happens, how do younger generations biblically think about caring well for those who are aging?

I think you’ll find this conversation between Sam and Jim very helpful. Sam, thank you for sitting down with Jim and letting us hear a little bit more about how we would counsel biblically issues dealing with aging parents.

Sam Stephens: Jim, thanks for being with us for this episode of our podcast. I would like to kick off our time together by asking you, how does the topic of counseling families with aging relatives hit home personally with you?

Jim Koerber: Sam, thanks for inviting me to be a part of this podcast. It really hits home because in God’s providence, I was the youngest cousin of an old family. As a child, I remember thinking at five years of age that weekends were designed for funerals apparently, because it seemed like we were going to one every week. I had an old family, and that was God’s design for my sanctification and hopefully even as we talk together today, some of the things I’ve learned over the years and what He’s pointed me to.

Also, in my church experience, I was in older and aging church at one time. As I looked into the topic of aging for a project I was working on, I found that we actually are living in a day and age where the fastest growing population are those 65 and older. That’s going to have a huge impact on churches and obviously in our biblical counseling ministry.

I found that over the years, older folks typically have not sought out biblical counseling, because they grew up in the years of more integrationist thinking or just thinking in terms of modern psychology as being where people went for help. I remember my pastor growing up would often say, “Well, I can counsel on marriage issues, but for the hard things I need to refer out.” I think that older generation had that mindset, but now as biblical counseling has matured, we now have people who are heading into their senior years who have grown up in the biblical counseling movement. I think that’s something we can really look forward to, and we need to be able to help families as they address aging parents.

Sam Stephens: Moving into how we can equip some of our listeners, from your experience what challenges do people face today in caring for aging relatives?

Jim Koerber: Sometimes this generation is called the Sandwich Generation, because we have a situation where (because of better medical care and living longer lives) people are now caring for aging parents while still taking care of their families. That can be a huge pressure on people, that can be overwhelming for people. There’s a lot of challenges that come their way. We are also in a day and age where there’s huge cultural shifts morally. There are higher divorce rates. There’s immorality. There are smaller families with fewer children. You have grandparents raising grandchildren often, and a real utilitarian view of people. Even when it comes to medical care, “image-bearer” isn’t a category for many in the medical field, but “usefulness” is and that really cuts against the grain of what the Scriptures have to say.

There’s an abandonment of all the Judeo-Christian guardrails we used to have, and that’s having a huge impact on that aging culture and on the families that are caring for them. How they even think about their aging parents is impacted. Ageism is happening, no longer are aging people treated with respect in our culture, and so this is a huge issue for our aging culture. I remember common phrase I would hear growing up was, “I just want a better life for you.”

That really has led to a very narcissistic way of thinking for people. If you look at the advertising that’s out there, there’s an exploitation of aging people—everything from hair coloring to better hearing aids, and those are good things and can be a blessing and mercy, but there is an industry out there that we really would like their retirement dollars.

Sam Stephens: Do you think that a low view from the culture of elderly people comes from the pursuit of extending life and extending youth? You see so many products being sold and geared towards things like that.

Jim Koerber: Materialism and a life of ease and comfort really come to play. All kinds of idols are on the table. Those who are caring for the aging may bring some of that baggage with them as they minister to those who may have that baggage. It can be pretty complicated, and that’s why the Scriptures really have a better answer.

Sam Stephens: That segues into this question I wanted to ask you. I’m glad you mentioned this concept of the Sandwich Generation. Praise the Lord that medical interventions do improve and life is extended. As that happens, we do see this anomaly where younger people are taking care of their aging parents. How have you seen people respond from their hearts as they interact with aging relatives and have to take on more care than they were expecting?

Jim Koerber: That question really intrigued me as I thought about this topic and did some research on it, because one of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that people often respond to their loved ones in ways that seem to be not very loving. It intrigued me as to why that would be. Here’s a suffering older person who perhaps is a bit slower, maybe their mental acuity isn’t quite what it used to be, and sometimes relatives actually seem angry with that parent or sibling. As I started considering that topic, I think there are many reasons for that. I don’t know that it would be useful to find out all the reasons, I think the hope and the help is going to come by reforming their thinking to think biblically about it. If they’re angry because that parent embarrasses them, well, there’s an idol that needs to be put off. What needs to be put on is a sense of love, care, others-mindedness, listening well, and those kinds of things.

People respond in all kinds of ways. People do respond in loving ways as well—I’ve seen that. I don’t want to make it sound like nobody loves their older parents, but oftentimes there’s a lot of frustration there. It goes from one end of the spectrum, where you might have somebody who has low-level frustration to where I’ve even seen in nursing homes where caregivers have gotten angry with those they are caring for and physically harmed them. There are responses that are taking place because of the heat that’s being put on that caregiver that may reveal some heart issues that are rising out. “I want peace. I want comfort. I don’t want mom or dad to embarrass me. They’ve never acted this way before.” Maybe even fear, with the question, “What’s happening to them—is that going to happen to me?” There’s all kinds of responses that I’ve seen out there.

Sam Stephens: For some of our listeners who may find themselves in a situation where they are caring for their elderly parents, whether they live in the home with them or they’re in a nursing facility, what biblical hope is there for them?

Jim Koerber: These are going to be for biblical counselors, especially, some very typical verses we use, but my mind first goes to Matthew 22. In that passage, the Sadducees had tried to confront Jesus and now the Pharisees are taking their hand at it, and the Pharisee asked Jesus, “‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ 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.’”

That really has to be a starting point. Your care for that aging relative really needs to be an act of worship, first and foremost where you’re seeking to glorify God, not please yourself. It can be hard. It can be very difficult. It can be inconvenient. You want to make sure that your goal is ultimately that God will be magnified in how you’re behaving, how you’re thinking, how you’re talking. Then the second commandment—loving your neighbor as yourself—I believe as you look at that passage, Jesus was using kind of a header, if you will.

The first part loving God with your entire being goes back to Deuteronomy 6, and then loving your neighbor goes back to Leviticus 19, where he just unpacks, “Well, what does it look like to love your neighbor? You take care of the poor. You’re just in your court dealings.” And then you get down to the end, and you’re even willing to be frank with your neighbor because to do otherwise would be hateful towards them. It should even be a matter of loving that aging loved one enough to confront them with the truth with patience, with a listening ear (so you understand why they’re making the decisions that they’re making). I think it needs to include all of those aspects rooted in the truth. We want to love them well through those times.

Matthew 22 comes to mind, another one I remember that David Powlison said this verse should be the key verse for every biblical counselor—1 Thessalonians 5:14, “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” And it goes on in 1 Thessalonians to say, “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances [including aging relatives]; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

As we think about caring for our aging relatives, we need to bring to bear verses like this that talk about being patient with those who are weak, coming alongside those who are faint-hearted. We don’t have time in this podcast, but it would be wonderful to unpack Ecclesiastes 11-12, where it talks about all of the things that aging people are going through, from teeth falling out to eyesight becoming dim, and being fearful of what’s taking place around them because they might fall. We need to recognize, as we help people encourage and counsel their aging relatives with God’s Word, we want to help them to recognize that patience and kindness need to come into play.

That reminds me of 1 Corinthians 13:4, which is another passage I think that would be helpful, where he says, “love is patient and kind.” It’s going to take great patience as we help our loved ones who maybe are driving a little bit slower, maybe their hearing isn’t quite as good, maybe they’re making decisions that we don’t quite understand (whether it be from a lack of hearing or perhaps early stages or full stages of dementia taking place). We want to help people to be patient, to adjust their expectations without compromising biblical truth, but we want to help them to adjust their expectations at least in understanding why they’re making the decisions that they’re making.

Kindness is key. Buy that relative a large print Bible to help them read. Think of what it’s like for them to live in their home, to get to church. I had an aging relative who just stopped going to church. Everybody questioned, “Why did you stop going to church?” They were assessing a spiritual reason behind this. They were just having problems with incontinence and it was embarrassing. Kindness to listen well. Proverbs 18:13 says, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” That’s true for our aging relatives as well.

Those are just some things, there’s probably other passages we could go to as well.

Sam Stephens: Jim, thank you for helping us to think rightly about this and see that really this is an exercise in putting others before ourselves and seeing these people through God’s economy, through God’s eyes. We appreciate the help and I know our listeners appreciate it too.

Jim Koerber: Thanks for having me.

Recommended Resources

Counseling Families with Aging Relatives Session by Jim Koerber | $2.99

Session Notes

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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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