Monday, February 25, 2013

11,000 Miles Away

When I was a child my paternal grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. My dad and his siblings committed to the challenge of caring for her at home.  This was out of deference to her deep desire to stay where her husband had lived and died, where her children were raised, and where she had spent her entire adult life.  It was sacrificial love.  It wasn't easy on any of them at the last, including my parents who lived 12 hours away by car and drove up every other weekend to take their turn at the 24/7 care that she needed.  

I understand as an adult that their situation was unique.  Few families have 12 adult members - 6 siblings and 6 in-laws.  Fewer still have the willingness and the professional skills (half of them were nurses) to care for a cancer patient at home.  As a child I took for granted that families care for their aging members whatever the cost, economic, emotional, or temporal.  I now know differently. 

Our Western culture asserts the independence and equality of the elderly. The American scheme for elder care, (Social Security, Medicare, assisted living, and nursing homes) implies that an elderly person should rely as long as possible on their own wits and such help as the government has to offer to manage their age and mortality.    As they become unable to care for themselves, the system works to help their family take care of them. This is not the case at all in both ancient and modern communal societies which lack such infrastructure.

In Eastern thought an older person is treated with respect and piety. This is in part due to the belief of many that the elderly person will soon return as a spirit that can either bring blessings or curses.  Furthermore, the feeling that the young owe a tremendous debt to the aged for their rearing has led to an ingrained honor of all older people. This debt begins to be paid when a child reaches adulthood.  The young person's income, status, and children belong to the family collectively.  Starting with their first pay check, many children send a portion of their income to their parents.  Often parents move in with a young couple to help with childcare.  This communal family life increases the physical and emotional comfort of the parents.   In other words, elder-care in the East begins with the child's majority not the adult's senility. 

Neither worldview is perfect.  Eastern thought holds that each circle, each family, is responsible for its own members and ignores those left without family.  Western thought affirms that each person starts out responsible for themselves.  When age slowly steals ability, to drive, to fill out paperwork, to fill pill bottles, to live alone, family and society take over.  Western thought assigns to family and society the final physical needs of the elderly skipping over many of the earlier and less obvious needs including respect, community, and a place to share their wisdom.  

Culturally more Eastern than Western, Jewish society maintained a pious attitude towards the aging.  God's law demanded, "You shall rise up before the grayheaded and honor the aged, and you shall revere your God; I am the LORD." (Leviticus 19:32).  Among the ten commandments we find, "honor your father and mother." Care of the elderly is a simple extension of this thought.

As Christians what are we called to do?  Our worldview sits in the intersection of individualism and collectivism.  The earliest Christians saw to the basic needs of the widows among them as a matter of course. (see last week's article for an example).  Even more compelling, Paul instructs Timothy to set up a roll of widows to be cared for by each church. In a Western way he is providing for those who have no family.  Furthermore, he bookends the passage with two verses that give explicit commands regarding our individual responsibility to aging parents. 

But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show piety at home and to repay their parents; for this is good and acceptable before God...If any believing man or woman has widows, let them relieve them, and do not let the church be burdened, that it may relieve those who are really widows. (1 Timothy 5:4 and 16)

As much as Paul was drawing in the passage on the individualism and societal responsibility so evident in Western thought, I was also struck by that very Eastern word, "piety."  It's the virtue of being religious and it immediately called to mind James' definition of pure religion, "to visit orphans and widows in their distress" (James 1:27). This piety can take on many forms including but not limited to our tone of voice when we talk to our elderly, listening to their advice and stories with respect, and caring for their physical needs. The New Testament points to a way where we care for each elderly person not only within our own family but with the church as well (a Western idea) with Eastern piety.  

These instructions Paul lays out aren't about world culture. A little analysis is a good thing; obedience is a far better one. Let's get down to business.  What Paul really said is that as a believing woman, I must care for members of my own family which hits closer to home. 

Google maps just calculated that we are 11,0000 miles away from our parents.  So how can we fulfill this command? Lucky for us they are young and relatively healthy, although doctor's visits and lab results have brought to the forefront how quickly that comfort can be challenged.  Both of us have wrestled this year with a sinking feeling that we are stretched too thin.  That our parents and grandparents need us already in a way that Skype and email may not be able to fulfill. My husband and I have been talking about what we should do.  We've been diligent in prayer.  We've agreed that our stay abroad is limited by our commitment to care for our parents when the need arises.  It all sounds good but we are deeply concerned about how to work it out.

Whatever our culture says, Eastern or Western, as Christians we should honor and respect our parents as a function of the way we honor and respect the Lord who gave them to us.  Both my Savior and my parents set a high standard and walked a hard road.  Now all I need to do is keep my feet on the right path.  


PS-I live a lot closer than 11,000 miles these days but these thoughts sparked an entire chapter in my new book-Women of Action.  Want more details?

Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(R), Copyright(c) 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.



  1. Wow, what an interesting post and thoughts, Helene. Refreshing post with new information. Thank you.

  2. Helene, This was a helpful post for me to read. It's refreshing that you don't have all the answers, but the explanation of Easter and Western ways is so very good. I'm 6-1/2 hours away from my aging mom, and the weight (and wait?) of what I will do when the time comes that more care is needed weighs heavily on me. So . . . part of the problem I see in our stories is that we have moved far from home, another Western value, compared with the Eastern value of remaining near the family home. I'm not sure I would have wanted to have done differently, and yet now, at this stage of life, I see the value in living closer.