Our Duty to Care for Our Elderly

Caring for the elderly is a challenge, but it can also be an opportunity for sainthood.

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A few years ago, my dad got a notification on his computer that it had a virus. He followed the notification’s prompts to protect his computer and dialed the number flashing on his screen. The person who answered the phone expressed deep concern and asked my dad a few questions to gain remote access to the apparently sick computer in a ruse to assist him. Unsurprisingly for most readers, the man on the other side of the phone line was a hacker who stole all of my dad’s personal information. 

My dad was preyed upon and taken advantage of. After realizing it was a scam, he called the police. They informed my dad that this scam, and others like it, are increasing in frequency, with the elderly as the most frequent victims. As my dad recounted his experience to me, all I could think was that I should have done more to protect him. As his daughter, it was my duty to warn him of threats such as these. It was my duty to uphold the Fourth Commandment by taking care of him. 

By 2030, the entirety of the baby boomer generation will have shifted into the ranks of older adulthood (65 years old and older), making up 20.3 percent of the United States population. For those in my generation whose parents fall in this demographic, this shift has tremendous implications for our lives.

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This is especially true for Catholics who seek to live in obedience with the Lord’s Commandments. Where the Fourth Commandment to honor thy father and mother previously called for our obedience and respect, as grown children, we are now called to become responsible for them. As we transition deeper in adulthood, we are called to care for our parents as they cared for us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explicitly tells us that we must give our parents “material and moral support in old age and in times of illness, loneliness, or distress.” 

My husband and I, along with many of our friends, are either already in or rapidly approaching the sandwich generation: people who are caring for both children and elderly adults. The Catechism tells us, “Respect toward parents fills the home with light and warmth. Grandchildren are the crown of the aged. With all humility and meekness, with patience, support one another in charity.” For most of history, grandparents, parents, and children lived together in one home. Places comparable to nursing homes would have been reserved for people who had no one to care for them—the destitute and wretched. 

Skilled nursing homes and assisted living facilities are modern alternatives for intergenerational living that provide care for a growing portion of society. These facilities may be the only options for families who cannot provide such care in the home, but they are often very expensive and not the preferred option for the elderly themselves. AARP estimates that 77 percent of people over the age of 55 want to stay in their home for as long as possible. 

Intergenerational households are a beautiful thing that not only nourish the souls of the aged but also bring wisdom and love to the young. If inviting our parents to live with us is not an option, we can still express our piety by showing up for our older loved ones in other ways. We can join our parents at a doctor’s appointment to help ask questions and guide health decisions. We can opt to help pay for a home health aide or a cleaning service that will alleviate some tasks that become burdensome in older age. 

We can encourage them to participate in group exercise classes at the local gym—where they likely receive a discount—so they can both move their bodies and meet new people. We can encourage our older relatives to formally express their wishes for their lives and, ultimately, deaths by designating a health proxy, making arrangements, and estate planning. We can create an account and pay for them to receive rides to and from appointments through programs like ITN (Independence Transportation Network) or GoGoGrandparent. Ultimately, we can walk more closely with our parents as their lives begin to slow down.

Most importantly, we can bring Christ to our parents by being a source of strength during a time of change and often tremendous isolation. We can pray with and for our elderly, reminding them that we are there for them and care for them. 

Scripture tells us what lies ahead for children who honor thy father and mother: 

Whoever honors his father atones for sins, and whoever glorifies his mother is like one who lays up treasure. Whoever honors his father will be gladdened by his own children, and when he prays he will be heard. (Sirach 3:3-5)

Caring for the elderly is a challenge, if not an opportunity for sainthood. Our older relatives may refuse our help or become somewhat of a burden if we’re already pressed for time and resources. It can become emotionally exhausting to enter into this phase of life with our relatives, one that could cause great emotional distress and resentment. 

In the last year of my father’s life, I often found myself frustrated that he would not listen to my advice or follow through on some of my suggestions. Still, in his final few months, he turned to me for help as my expressed interest in his life evolved into a trust that I would care for him as his health declined. Although it was incredibly stressful to step into this role while caring for a newborn, it was an immense blessing to walk with my father during that time. I am very grateful to God for the opportunity to have done so. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church shows that those who observe the Fourth Commandment will be rewarded: 

…that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you. Respecting this commandment provides, along with spiritual fruits, temporal fruits of peace and prosperity. Conversely, failure to observe it brings great harm to communities and to individuals.  

Upholding the Fourth Commandment, to honor thy father and mother, goes beyond protecting our parents and older family members from harm; it involves taking an active role in their lives as they age by providing for them materially and spiritually. It involves caring for the elderly in our communities—the elderly man who lives alone up the street or the older couple who attends the early morning Mass on Sundays. As Catholics, we are called to do more than live peacefully in private. We are called to be better sons and daughters to our community’s elderly.

Author

  • Margo White

    Margo White is a wife and mother living in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. A lover of the elderly and healthcare, and inspired by St. Catherine of Siena’s care of the sick, she works as a Healthcare Manager helping the older-adult population age in place. She can be reached at [email protected].

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