Caring for an Elderly Parent

Caring for an Elderly Parent When You Don’t Want To

Rhonda RobinsonBy Rhonda Robinson7 Minutes

Even when she lay dying, she would’t say it. Those three little words every child needs to hear, “I love you.” After all, there are a lot of ways you can say it. “I’m proud of you,” would have done the job nicely. Caring for an elderly parent is such a strange paradox. With one foot in each role, parent and child, the weight of caring for an aging or dying parent is squarely on your shoulders. While in your heart, you are still crying out for the unmet needs of a childhood long ago.

Although I was adopted at infancy, I never knew any other mother. For the most part, I chalked up my parents’ lack of affection to the era that raised them. They were the “silent generation.” You don’t hear about them often, they followed in the shadow of the “greatest generation.” Their childhood was spent in the poverty of the depression and came of age at the close of WWII.

The generation gap was never larger than those who were raised in that era, and those of us trying to grow up in the midst and aftermath of the Vietnam war – the chaos of the sixties. The two generations stood in stark contrast to one another, and my mother and I quintessentially fit those respective molds.

I was with her when she got the news.

Small Cell Carcinoma. A particularly aggressive type of lung cancer. Fifty years of smoking had taken its toll. She was eighty-six and staunchly independent. Driving herself to every appointment, mowing her own lawn, trying to care for a son well into his forties who was mentally crippled by alcoholism. Her 5’7″ frame weighed just under a hundred pounds, fully dressed, draped in a bathrobe, holding a flashlight to see the numbers on the scale. And yet, her mind was as sharp as ever.

The doctors gave her nine to eighteen months with treatment, six to nine without. Overall she was asymptotic. She saw no need to change her lifestyle or have any help.

Until, that is, the cough set in.

It was the end of March. That year brought with it a particularly harsh respiratory cold. When I called to check in on her that Friday night, my adopted brother answered. They were both coughing. He said neither of them felt good, they both had a cold. However, she couldn’t finish a sentence without succumbing to a coughing jag. It was just three months after her diagnosis.

By Sunday, I was concerned enough to make the trip from Tennessee to Illinois to see to it she saw a doctor. While I was in route, an ambulance came and took her to the hospital. The following Wednesday, I brought her home with hospice care, and moved in. I was prepared to stay for the months, I thought, she had left.

God’s first Commandment comes with a promise.

Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the LORD your God is giving you. Deuteronomy 5:16

Honor is a feeling we don’t experience often enough in our culture, it’s different than love. It is a deep, powerful emotion we can’t manufacture on our own or substitute. It comes from doing what is hard, what is right, at the expense of our own comfort.

Caring for an elderly parent is hard work. The weeks spent serving my mother during her last days were emotionally and physically draining. She was demanding. Frail. And in need of around-the-clock medication and care. The need to ease her pain robbed her of her sharp mind. Morphine and cancer reduced her to what she feared the most – being feeble and dependent.

I wish I could have heard the words I longed to hear from my mother, and I would be a liar if I told you that not hearing them didn’t hurt. But I can tell you, the love I felt from my Heavenly Father and the honor He pinned on my heart, surpassed my expectations of what I wanted from my earthly mother.

Caring for an elderly parent is about you, not them.

During that time I came to understand what the Lord meant, at least in part, in Deuteronomy 5:16. We can honor our parents for who they are – our parents. Not for how good a job at parenting they may or may not have done. Honoring them, serving them, because that is what the Lord has commanded, brings with it rewards felt deep inside that only He can give.

We have no choice in who our parents are, or control over whether they filled the role of parenting well, or failed in our eyes. What we do have, is the choice to follow God’s commandments in honoring them. Caring for an elderly parent, with love and gratitude, not for what they have done, but for who God ordained them to be, your parent, is honoring them.

It’s not about the person they are, but rather, the God you serve, and the person you want to become.