Benjamin Mast is the author of Second Forgetting: Remembering the Power of the Gospel During Alzheimer’s Disease (2014, Zondervan). He is an elder at Sojourn Community Church, a licensed psychologist and a board certified geropsychologist. He is also an Associate Professor and Vice Chair in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at the University of Louisville and President-Elect of the Society for Clinical Geropsychology.

“Honor your father and mother”—is the first commandment with a promise—“so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth” (Ephesians 6:2-3).

The challenges of caring for aging parents often come without warning or preparation. Sometimes it’s sudden—following a stroke, a hip fracture or the death of a spouse who provided daily care. Other times, it comes on gradually—as is the case with Alzheimer’s disease, when microscopic changes slowly but steadily damage the brain.

Whatever the onset, caring for aging parents necessitates we give of ourselves in ways and to degrees that we hadn’t anticipated. In the best scenario, it’s a joyful exchange of love and support between aging parents and their adult children. But for many, parent care is a challenge that brings up difficult dynamics and forces us to make decisions that put us at odds with what our parents want.

Difficult Dynamics

Caring for aging parents does not occur in a vacuum—it happens in the context of a long, sometimes messy and painful relationship history.

How do we care for aging parents who have hurt us or with whom we are still angry over years of conflict or poor treatment? How should we care for parents who emotionally or spiritually neglected us but are now fully dependent upon us for their most basic daily needs such as bathing, eating, and getting dressed? 

Difficult Decisions

Caring for an aging parent can involve decisions and burdens that we frankly wish we did not have to carry. If they become unsafe to drive but insist on continuing, we may need to take away their keys or even report them to authorities. If they are unable to live alone, we may need to move them into our homes, a nursing home or other continuing care community. If they can no longer manage money, we may need to step in to manage it for them. Worse yet, if they don’t recognize their need for help they may resist and legal steps might be necessary to gain the capacity to make decisions on their behalf . . . and they will not like it. Others face painful behavioral problems from parents who can no longer seem to control their behavior or words, and who can’t seem to be reasoned with. 

It can be difficult to figure out what honoring our father and mother looks like. How do we honor them when doing the right thing is the opposite of what our parents want?  How do we honor difficult parents when our hurt and anger tell us they don’t deserve it? 

Care motivated by grace, not by what we think they deserve

We must not abandon our aging parents, no matter how they treated us in the past or how difficult they are in the present. Instead, we might start by remembering that God does not treat us as we deserve or repay us according to our sin against him (Psalm 103:10). We are treated with grace and are called to extend grace to those who depend upon us. We must hold a merciful, forgiving heart toward our parents before we can honor and love them well.

God provides what we need each day

Just as God miraculously provided his children with manna each day while they wandered in the desolation of the wilderness, he can miraculously provide all you need each day while you journey through the more difficult regions of parent care. Give us, Lord, our daily bread as we care for our parents. Lord, give us grace to care for our parents in a way that honors them and you.

Bring your burdens to Christ to find rest and strength

The parent care journey can be long and can bring great fatigue and discouragement, particularly when we sacrifice our own interests for their sake. Many adult children feel heavily burdened and sometimes bitter. Jesus offers a gracious invitation:

“‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Whatever we do for the least of these we do for Christ

We might think no one sees what we do for our parents. Parents with memory problems may not know all that we do and probably don’t often thank us. Does it matter that we deny ourselves to honor them? Consider how Jesus responds to those who gave of themselves for others:

“‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me….
Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Selected from Matthew 25:34-40)

Caring for an aging parent, even a very difficult one, is an opportunity to serve the Lord in a very concrete way. 

God’s grace covers us, even when we sin against our parents

Even when you want to do your best in caring for a parent, you will reach your limit and sin against them. You will sometimes respond in frustration, exhaustion, resentment, bitterness, anger and guilt.  It is for this sin that Christ came and died. Don’t hesitate to confess these sins and experience the freedom that comes only from grace. Don’t allow the burden of sin to carry over into the next day.  Bring it to Christ and receive his grace today. The next day may carry new troubles and you’ll need to seek God’s provision instead of dwelling on yesterday’s sin. Remember that God’s mercies and compassions are new everyday (Lamentations 3:19-24). He draws us near so that we might know our need for him. Faithfully caring for a parent does not mean you do it perfectly. Instead, we are humbled by our limitations, and only then do we approach the throne of grace to find that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).