Do We Have an Obligation to Care for Aging Parents?

Parents are pretty cool people.  They spend untold amounts of time and money making sure that their children (hopefully) become responsible, productive adults that may in turn become parents themselves.  But there’s one fatal flaw in almost every parent I’ve ever talked to: they’re getting older.  I don’t mean like generationally, “people are having children later in life.”  I just mean, quite simply, your parents aren’t as young as they once were.  So what happens when they get to the point where their bodies and minds begin to fail?  What if they can’t provide an income for themselves anymore, and maybe their retirement stash has run out quicker than expected, or there wasn’t much there to begin with?  Is it our responsibility as children to provide financially for the people that raised us?

The bible seems to say that it is.

Honor Your Father and Mother

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

– Exodus 20:12 (ESV)

The fifth of the Ten Commandments is repeated over and over throughout Scripture in one form or another.  It’s pretty obvious that there is a degree of respect owed to our parents simply because they’re our parents.  I understand that some people feel their parents aren’t exactly worthy of respect for whatever reason, and maybe those reasons are even valid.  But there are no qualifiers or loopholes in this command.  Similar to how we can respect the office of President even if we don’t particularly like the man or woman who holds it, we can still show respect to parents in how we address them, talk about them to others (including our own children), and in our financial plans.

Listen to your father who gave you life,
    and do not despise your mother when she is old.

– Proverbs 23:22 (ESV)

That’s pretty self-explanatory, right?  Your parents gave you life, don’t ignore them in your adulthood.  Begin building your future plans with the expectation that they may call on you for help some day.

Provide for Your Household (Even if They Don’t Live With You)

But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

– 1 Timothy 5:8 (ESV)

Some historical context here might help clarify this passage.  When Paul wrote this to Timothy, multi-generational living was the norm.  People didn’t go off to New York or LA in the hopes of becoming an Oscar-winning actor when they turned 18.  Mostly, they stayed in the same house they grew up in, carried on the family business, and had their own kids, repeating the cycle.  Meanwhile, their parents stayed with them until they died, making their care much easier from a logistics standpoint.  The able-bodied men and women of the house were expected to keep it running and make sure everyone who lived there was taken care of.  That’s a little out of the ordinary now, but the concept still stands: family takes care of family.  The point is actually hammered home a little better just four verses before:

But 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 (ESV)

Paul was writing in this chapter about the church’s instructions regarding those in its membership.  He told them that while a widow is certainly to be cared for, her primary source of that care should be her children if they’re able to do so.  There’s a benefit wrapped up in this instruction for those children, too: “this is pleasing in the sight of God.”  Don’t miss that!  God is pleased when we care for our parents in their time of need.

Let’s Get Specific

Maybe you’ve read all this and thought, “Yeah, I’m good.  I don’t really have to give the money I worked for away to my parents’ care, do I?”  Well, let’s look at what Jesus Himself said about it:

For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’  But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.

– Matthew 15:4-6 (ESV)

Again, a little unpacking might be in order.  Jesus is talking to the Pharisees (part of the religious and social authority of the time, somewhat like Senators in the US), who continuously tried to trip Him up on what He was teaching versus what the holy writings said.  They asked Him about why His disciples were breaking their traditions, which were basically rules they had added to God’s commandments and claimed they were also from God, even though they weren’t.  Jesus rebuked them pretty soundly by addressing how they selfishly got around the command to provide for their parents.  The Pharisees thought they could get away with telling their ailing parents, “Sorry Mom and Dad, but I gave the money that should have been used for your healthcare to the church.  Surely you agree that God is more important, right?  I just can’t help at all because of how spiritual I am.”  Jesus put them in their place by telling them that even giving to the church doesn’t take the place of providing for parents when they need it.  I don’t know that you and I can come up with a better excuse, so we should probably just stick with God’s command rather than our interpretation of it.

What Does “Support” Mean?

I think that’s pretty clear: we’re to support our family as they age.  But what does that look like?  Are we supposed to become an open checkbook, allowing our parents to drain our bank accounts past dry?  Do we need to sell all that we own and move across the country, giving up businesses and relationships in the process, to become live-in nurses?  I don’t think so.  I think the same principles telling us to provide the support can also be used in setting the boundaries of that support.

Honor Your Parents

If you begin to assume some of the financial burden for your parents, you also assume the role of director as far as choosing where those funds go.  In a reversal from when you were living under their roof, that means you get to set some boundaries with the goal of promoting their well-being to the best it can possibly be.  That means, if a parent has an issue with gambling, excessive drinking, or some other harmful activity, you don’t need to support that aspect of their finances.  Only spend in ways that will honor your parents, and do your research before you start blindly handing out cash.  Just because a care facility has a fountain in the lobby doesn’t mean it’s worth the extra thousand a month, but don’t go with the place handing out Groupons, either.  You are still stewarding God’s money, even in the care of someone else, so make sure it’s being used wisely while accomplishing what needs to be accomplished.

Provide for Your Family

Don’t let any one situation so consume your attention that you neglect your other responsibilities.  Even if your parents have extreme medical needs, don’t forget that your spouse and children are still counting on you as well.  If you’ve got siblings, all of you pooling together should mitigate the impact on your personal finances somewhat.  And hopefully, your parents were wise enough during their working years to have some sort of plan for aid when they couldn’t provide for themselves any longer.  Government programs like Social Security and Medicare, while not to be relied on as a sole source of income, can help close the gap when necessary.  There are also countless local charities across the nation that can provide help for seniors in different ways.

What do you think?  Does this biblical instruction still make sense in our often disjointed culture?  With our society’s emphasis on advancing your career and your wealth, seemingly at any cost, where should we draw the line in order to focus on our family?

6 thoughts on “Do We Have an Obligation to Care for Aging Parents?

  1. That is a very balanced and scripturally based approach to what can be a real problem. My parents had plenty of money but their health eventually failed and it was an honor to help care for them until they passed away. My brother lived quite far away and I felt sorry for him that he did not get to do the hands on helping that I did. Some of it was very unpleasant and pushed me far out of my comfort zone but then I’m sure that as a baby I had done the same thing to my parents long ago. I was blessed that not only were they not a financial burden but that they left us a substantial inheritance but just as blessed for being able to make their final years more comfortable with my and my sweet spouses hands on helping. Because they taught me sound money and spiritual lessons as a child and young adult my kids will likewise receive a substantial inheritance and will be there for me when and if I need care I feel confident.

    1. Wow, I’m sorry to hear that, Steve. I’m glad you were able to be there for your parents, and it sounds like it was a really bittersweet experience to share their last days in the way you did.

  2. Wow — I could write a book on this, and actually keep threatening to do just that.

    My mother had no savings at all and very little more than Social Security for income when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She recovered but was too frail to continue living alone, so we (my husband, daughter and I) moved 1200 miles and moved her in with us. My brothers were not in a position to take over her care, so I was the logical choice. She was with us for 9 years and I was her full-time caregiver for the last 5 of those.

    The stress was almost unbearable at times; the financial drain is still being felt although she passed in 2013; I missed far too much of my daughter’s life — basketball games, parents’ day at school, etc.; my own health suffered as I had to delay a surgical procedure of my own until Mom passed so I could be in the hospital for a week; and we own a house that doesn’t really suit us but has a mother-in-law suite that was a necessity at the time. Our lives would have been (and would certainly be right now) much, much easier if we had not made the choices we did.

    But things are balanced in light of eternity in God’s economy, and His ways are not our ways. Mom accepted Christ at the age of 75 right here in our home, just before she began a long downward slide with mixed dementia.

    I’m out about $40,000, tons of memories I wish I could have made when my daughter was young, and probably a couple of years off my life from the stress.

    But it was totally worth it and I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. I may get to tell her that when I see her again.

    1. Your perspective is spot on, Ellen! So often, we’re focused on what makes us happy and comfortable here and now, when we’re promised eternal rest later! The costs don’t really seem that important when we consider the reward we’ve been promised, do they? Hopefully your daughter understands why you made the sacrifices you did, and would be willing to do the same for you if you ever needed her.

  3. If you read my blog out my window you will see that I am going through real trials with my mother. I am one of 5 children and the only one willing to take her. Actually the only one stable enough to take her. I am often asked why I do this as she is hard and has never been fair to me? My father was an alcoholic and although a funny, handsome, brilliant man he had every vice a man could possibly have. My husband and I made every sacrifice we could to make his final days happy ones. Again my brothers and sisters were at odds with me over my care for this man that cared very little for us. But my reply always was. We are to honor our mother and our father. There are no stipulations. Like only honor them if they are rich, or nice, or close to you. You are to honor them period. Now I don’t think you have to put up with abuse or have a relationship with an abuser, molester or someone that was very harmful to you. You do have to forgive. I take care of my mom because I love her and I feel it is my duty and calling from the Lord to do so. I am honored to do this even though it is very very hard. Loved your article.

    1. You’re so right. If we only loved people based on how they treated us, the world would be much darker even than it is now. We don’t love them because of who they are, we love them because of who we are in Christ and how we’ve been loved first by Him. Keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply