Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go. (John 21:18 NIV)
Earlier this week I had lunch with my cousin and a friend of ours from our university days, three middle-aged ladies whose lives had taken different paths and yet who had much in common. One was married to an academic, another was the wife of a retired airforce general, and the third was a pastor’s wife. But we all had shared history in the university choir and, as we soon discovered, we all had elderly parents needing long-term care. So, in the midst of the hilarity of catching up, our conversation was peppered generously with words like “dementia,” “forgetfulness,” and “eh???”
My parents and mum-in-law have geriatric healthcare needs that require a caregiver’s full-time attention. Nowadays, in the course of caring for my mum, I am often reminded of Dory in the movie Finding Nemo. Love means answering the same question umpteen times within five minutes. I have to confess that there are days when I “lose it” and snap at my mum. But in my saner moments, I know that none of our parents would consciously want to cause us anger and frustration. Is it any wonder that I’ve been thinking a lot about the theology of ageing?
What do we do when family life comes full circle and our parents need our “parenting”? Michael McKenzie in his article, “Ethics at the Twilight of Life: Our Obligation To The Elderly,” Christian Research Journal 21(4), says:
Children often feel a strong pull to care for their parents. Such intuitive feelings are legitimate, and they point to what Sarah Vaughan Brakman sees as the twin sources of filial responsibility in caregiving: reciprocity and gratitude. Reciprocity (which corresponds roughly to the biblical concepts of giving justice and honor to parents and the elderly) means giving to people what is due them. Gratitude goes beyond reciprocity in its insistence on benevolence, and it has some affinities with the biblical idea of love. (www.equip.org/articles/care-for-the-elderly)
Reciprocity sounds like a cold and calculated returning of that which is owed. I’d like to think that my beloved’s and my care of our parents stems from a deep gratitude for the love they lavished on us when we were helpless and dependent on them. I knew I was marrying the right man when we spontaneously agreed (before our nuptials) that both sets of parents would be welcomed in our home should the time come when they were unable to look after themselves. This is what happens when you enter into marriage at a more mature stage of life. I highly doubt we would have discussed this if we’d been starry-eyed young adults marrying for the first time.
Well, the time has indeed come for us, and we’re making concrete preparations to welcome my parents into our home. I imagine, increasingly, that this scenario will be played out in many households across Singapore and Malaysia. According to the Department of Statistics in Singapore, between 1970 and 2011, the percentage of those 65 years and older in the population rose from 3.4 to 9.3 percent. In absolute numbers, the senior population rose from 70,533 to 482,084. And the way the demographics are going, the rate is likely to climb exponentially in the foreseeable future.
In Singapore, where meritocracy has ensured that those who are able have every opportunity to succeed, the danger is that those who are not perceived to be contributing tangibly or economically would then be deemed not to have any value. I think it would be a really powerful apologetic for our faith when we show by our lives that every person has an intrinsic value by virtue of the fact that he or she has been created in the image of God. So when we care for our parents at a time when they are helpless and not able to contribute to society as they used to, will we not then be living out what Jesus tells us in Matthew 22:37-39:
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”
Surely our closest neighbours would be those in our immediate families. In 1 Timothy 5:8, Paul tells us in no uncertain terms how strongly he feels about this:
Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
I recall fondly how one of Soo Inn’s mentors, together with his wife, moved into an elder care facility so that they (who are now in their early seventies) could care for her mother who is in her nineties. What an example to follow! My prayer is that those who come after us may find us similarly faithful.
So, in the course of my lunch with the gals, we regaled one another with stories of our parents’ foibles, not because we were belittling them, but because we were in safe company where we could release tensions and know that we would not be judged. I didn’t come away from the lunch with my filial responsibilities miraculously taken care of, but my spirit was lighter just knowing that I was not alone in having to make this journey.