It was time to put up or shut up. As a pastor, for years I’d taught from 1st Timothy 5 the need for families to take care of their own. I’d quoted verses like 1st Timothy 5:3-4, which says, “Honor widows who are really widows. 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.”
I’d taught and believed that we have a responsibility to care for our elderly parents when they can no longer care for themselves. It wasn’t the government’s job, or even the church’s job. It was ours. We needed to “repay” our parents for the love and care they bestowed upon us for some eighteen years while we grew into responsible adulthood. Our parents loved us, cared for us, changed out diapers, clothed us, fed us, educated us, and put a roof over our heads. They put up with our moods and sassiness. They lived through our rebellious years. They sat in the stands and cheered us on at our sporting events. And they never charged us for this love and care. Now it becomes our turn to repay them as they grow older and can’t take care of themselves.
It was a God-ordained duty, I claimed. For a Christian to not fulfill this duty, according to 1st Timothy 5:8, was to be worse than the pagans: “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Traditionally, even pagans cared for their elderly. Certainly, Christians would.
Having preached that stuff for years to others, it now became my turn to face that prospect. In May, my 96 year old father went into the hospital and was told he could no longer live alone. His health and mind had deteriorated to the point where he was a danger to himself and others. He would put dinner in the oven and promptly forgot it was there till the smoke alarms started blaring and the fire department showed up. He couldn’t keep track of whether he had taken his meds or not. The doctor said, “No more.” My dad’s choice was not simple: Go live in an impersonal nursing home or come live with us. He chose us, and we moved him and his things into our home that month.
Was it easy? No! Especially not as his mind released its power to control his body to dementia. We learned first-hand what the term “second childhood” was all about as he settled into the emotions of a toddler, except we couldn’t discipline as we would a toddler. He’d given up his apartment, most of his possessions, his independence, and he lost his ability to drive. Therefore, having lost so much, he became overly protective about the things he had left.
“No locks on these doors,” he would say. “Somebody must have needed my hair brush more than me,” implying that one of us had stolen it.
“No, Dad. It’s right here on your dresser. Right where you left it. No one took it,” we would tell him. But a few minutes later, it would be something else.
He lost his sense of propriety. He began to cuss, using words I don’t remember him ever saying before. He had always lived a fine, moral, Christian life, but now, he would proposition waitresses, spit on the carpet, and sing inappropriate ditties in public. He would knock over displays in Wal-Mart with his ride on cart. He was afraid to die, so he would sit up all night with the lights on. When the home health care nurse asked if he wanted to get into bed, he responded, “Bed, dead, shovel dirt.” So he refused. It was embarrassing for me to have to help him to the bathroom, take a shower, or hold his urinal for him. You don’t expect to ever have to do that for your father.
Often, my wife and I would look at each other and say, “I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t take it.” But we did. Not because my dad was appreciative. He was more resentful that he had to leave his apartment, and it was all our fault. We made him give up his apartment. We wouldn’t let him drive. We robbed him of his independence. We cared for him, not because he was grateful, but because we thought it was right. It was what we believed God wanted us to do.
And we felt an obligation to him, that he deserved it. The man he now was wasn’t the man he used to be. The dementia had changed him. The man we remembered demonstrated hard work and faithfulness. When I grew up, my dad cared for not only for his mom and dad in our home, but also my mom’s mom. That had not been easy for him either. He had also faithfully stayed by the side of two wives, caring for them as they died. Could we do any less for him in his time of need?
My dad passed away on October 2nd, one month and one day following his 97th birthday. He left behind almost no estate, but he left behind a legacy. He was born during World War I, grew up in the Great Depression, fought in World War II as part of the “Greatest Generation,” raised four children, faithfully stayed married to my mother for 40 years until her death, and faithfully staying with a new wife for another eleven until her death. Plus, from the time he came to faith as a young man, he faithfully attended and served in a Baptist Church. Us kids had a Christian upbringing. My father’s life needed to be honored; his final days needed to be surrounded by family, not shuttled off to an impersonal nursing home.
For me and my wife, it was time to put up or shut up. We did the hard thing and cared for my Dad until he died. Was it easy? No. Was it right? We believe it was.
Rev. Daniel Packer has been a pastor for twenty five years (Currently he serves as pastor of the Orrington Center Church in Orrington, Maine). He is an active proponent of Biblical morality. His e-mail address is email@example.com.