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This is the last in a three-part essay examining how Christians ought to care for their aging parents. In this third part, the attempts to provide practical suggestions regarding specific situations. Make sure to read the excellent first and second portions before diving in this week.
This article has been translated and republished with permission. If you read Mandarin, you can access the original article here.
3. Seeking the Lord’s Will in Specific Situations
As Christians, we must work diligently for the eternal benefits of the souls of the parents who raised us. We must also care for their physical and emotional needs in every situation according to God’s will. What, then, are some ways in which society helps us to care for the elderly? And how should Christians and churches seek God’s will in specific situations and act according to it?
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A) The General Situation in Society
According to the national census, China is becoming a society of elderly people, giving it a number of unique characteristics. First, the base number of seniors in China is enormous. According to the census at the end of 2013, the population of China above the age of 60 stands at 202 million, 14.9% of the total population. The number of seniors is increasing rapidly, and more people are losing abilities and becoming empty nesters. Furthermore, the problem of supporting the elderly is exacerbated by the poverty of the elderly and the “421” family structure.  Moreover, there is a great disparity between the villages and the cities, thus making the problem of caring for the elderly in villages even more pronounced. The population of farmers is more than 70 million, and three-quarters of the elderly live in villages. Many say that the elderly in the villages are insured by old-age insurance, but this is not true. And many factors like urbanization, employment pressures, and high living costs exacerbate the problem of supporting the elderly.
Currently, many social programs are addressing the problem of eldercare. For example, in Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities, there is the “9073” eldercare program. This program requires that 90% of the city’s elderly be taken care of by their families, 7% of them be in medical facilities in their communities, and 3% of them be taken care of in nursing homes.
There are currently three different classes of nursing homes: high-class, middle-class, and low-class. High-class nursing homes require a hefty fee, and it is not easy for the average person to enter. Most middle-class homes have good amenities, and they adhere to the ever-rising national and professional standards, but it is difficult for small-scale nursing homes to enact profitable business models. Low-class homes often have poor living environments and poor care and are chosen by those elderly people with no other options.
Most elderly people are cared for at home, and this is the most natural way. But the elderly also encounter many problems here. Parents are treated by many children as free nannies for their grandchildren. Children expect them to help pay for a house, thus depleting their savings for eldercare. Children experience many life pressures and often intentionally neglect their elderly parents at home. Family relationships, especially those between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, are difficult to deal with. Traditionally, the son has the responsibility to house the elderly, and the daughter must support them financially. In single-child families, it is difficult for a young couple to support two pairs of parents. In multi-child families, many take turns caring for the elderly parents for the sake of “fairness,” which creates much family conflict.
B) What Should Christians Do?
As Christian children, how do we, in this generation, diligently and faithfully care for our parents according to God’s will? Undoubtedly, we should consider the condition of our parents’ souls and their spiritual growth as priorities. With this at the center, there are a few other specific factors to consider: Do the parents believe in the Lord? What is their physical health and financial situation? How are their relationships with their children and spouse? What are their opinions about the church? These considerations ought to be taken into account according to specific situations and times as we decide on specific ways to support them.
i) Taking Care of the Elderly at Home
The Bible says a man is to leave his parents and be united to his wife. After marriage, the marital relationship replaces the filial relationship as the most important relationship between human beings. Caring for parents in one’s own home is the primary and most natural way of caring for the elderly. How, then, are we to apply this principle in specific situations, and what considerations must be made? Here, I am only giving some principles. When dealing with specific situations, we still must pray and think about them according to God’s word.
First, Christians should emphasize psychological separation from their parents. Before marriage, God gives our parents direct authority over us, and this parental relationship is our most important human relationship. But after marriage, sisters must submit to their husbands as wives, and brothers become the heads of their families as husbands. Therefore, they must learn to lead their families independently. Even though husbands can still heed important advice from the parents and honor their opinions, they must realize that they themselves must make the final decision and take responsibility for it. This separation is actually necessary for us to be faithful in taking care of our parents according to the will of god. For only when we are mature in the Lord and are no longer childish can we bear the burden of caring for the elderly.
Second, Christians ought to avoid financial dependence on their parents. This is true regardless of one’s parents’ financial situation or their subjective opinions. This is also an essential principle of what it means to “leave” them. And when possible, especially after their parents have grown old, children ought to financially support their parents in reasonable ways.
Third, the question of whether children should live with their parents depends on the specific circumstances. The general principle is that children should do what makes their family more godly and what is beneficial to their parents’ souls.
They should consider the following circumstances:
1) Are the parents Christians? If the parents have not yet believed in the Lord, children should try their best to be present with them physically for the sake of their salvation.
2) Children must consider timing. If the parents are not accustomed to living with their children (for example, if the children live in the city but the parents are used to village life), then they can consider living together for a short term.
3) Children should consider location. If finances are not a problem, children can consider living near their parents, which makes caring for them more convenient and also allows both families to maintain relative independence.
4) Children should consider the age and health conditions of their parents. If the parents are young and relatively healthy, it is not an urgent matter to stay under one roof; but if they are old and are unable to take care of themselves, the children should advise their parents to live with them, and they, as children, ought to welcome them into their homes and provide care for them.
5) Children must consider both sets of parents. Generally, it is better to avoid having both sets of parents living together at the same time. The reason for this is that it is hard to provide adequate care. There is also a high risk of conflict. The children can consider their parents’ spiritual conditions, as well as their health and age, and invite one set of parents to live with them at a time.
6) If after considering all of these things it is clear that the parents need to live with their children, the husband and wife must agree in their decision. After considering the difficulties of having the parents live with them, they must be united in their wills and in their principles.
It is here where we especially need to look at the will and promises of God regarding caring for our parents from a gospel perspective and from a gospel motivation. Because of the gospel of the cross of Jesus Christ, we are saved. Spurred on by the Lord’s love, we ought to do the will of God with a heart of gratitude, bearing the difficulties of living together with our parents. We ought to be patient in all things, submitting to the will of God so that we bear wonderful testimony for the Lord to our parents, families, and neighbors. Even though we will face challenges as we serve the Lord in this gospel-centered way, we will nevertheless be blessed by him.
Fourth, if there are other siblings, Christian children should be proactive in bearing this responsibility of supporting their parents. We should treat this as a responsibility and blessing given to us by God and not complain about fairness. Even if we really do occasionally face some financial strain or pressure as a result of this decision, it is a price worth paying for the sake of obeying God’s will, and it is pleasing to God.
Moreover, the church should teach Christian families about caring for the elderly. Just like marriage counseling and children’s education, the church should teach believers how to care for the elderly at appropriate times. It should not neglect God’s will regarding this just because believers are not concerned about it.
ii) Elderly Care in Communities
Families can also learn from methods used by some community assistance programs to deal with the difficulties of taking care of the elderly. In the publication China Elderly, there is an article entitled “Taking Care of the Elderly in ‘Small Circles,’” which introduces a model of mutually taking care of the elderly within neighborhoods. There are also some communities with “elderly daycare centers,” which can look after elderly people during the day while their children are working. In the evening, the children can pick them up and take them home. This can help families avoid the potential hazards of leaving the elderly home alone. It also satisfies the elderly’s need for communal life, as well as their psychological needs.
The church should actively consider expanding these kinds of ministries.We frequently organize Bible studies for the elderly, but we spend less time considering their daily needs. If we combine both elderly fellowship groups and eldercare, gathering nearby elderly Christians and parents of Christian children together, we can foster their spiritual growth by folding unbelieving elderly people into fellowship groups while at the same time alleviating family worries. But this ministry work requires a certain level of professionalism and dedication. It also requires spiritual guidance. So if the church sees a need in this area, it must treat it as a unique ministry and not just as something to be taken care of by one or two passionate congregants.
iii) Taking Care of the Elderly in Nursing Homes
As for sending parents to nursing homes, this solution has traditionally been frowned upon, and it also creates financial strain. Based on his experience, Pastor Zhu Yongliang, who has researched and participated in elderly ministries for many years in Shanghai, has concluded, “A child’s filial piety is not determined by whether or not he sends his parents to a nursing home. When an elderly parent lives in a nursing home for a long time, everyone can clearly tell which child has filial piety and which one doesn’t.” If some parents would rather live in a nursing home, their children can still fulfill their responsibility to care for their parents in this way. But they should be diligent and not use this as an excuse for escaping their responsibilities.
All of the forms of eldercare discussed here are not absolute because specific situations differ. What is more important is diligent research and prayer. What are the primary factors influencing our decisions? Are they the pressures of the real world? The needs of our parents? The inclinations of our flesh? Are the salvation of our parents’ souls and their spiritual growth our primary considerations? Are we thinking about how we can better witness for the Lord and glorify him? Are we thinking about how we can improve the unity and godliness of our families? These are things we should continually be seeking before God with a clean conscience.
There is a moving scene in the Bible. As the elderly widow Naomi holds the child of her daughter-in-law Ruth in her lap, some people say to her as his grandmother, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel!” (Ruth 4:14) The heart of God is a heart of compassion. He cares for those who are weak and lonely. He gives them a home. Because he sent his own son Jesus to be our “redeemer,” we who are in Christ may be called children of God.
Even though we face difficulties and conflicts, and even though we are busy serving the church, we are a people who have been loved. Our whole lives belong to the Lord Jesus Christ, so we should depend on him in all things and glorify him in all that we do. Since we are loved, we ought to have the same mind as Christ, caring for our earthly parents in the Lord with a heart of gratitude. We ought to consider before God how we can practically care for the physical and spiritual health of our elderly parents. When was the last time that you took a serious look at your parents? When was the last time that you prayed for them before our Heavenly Father? How is their physical health? Are their souls secure? Let us repent from this moment on, and may the Lord’s will be done!
English translation provided by Moses, Brent, and the China Partnership translation team. Please refer to our reposting guidelines for permission to share on your blog or website.
Translator’s note: this model presumes four elderly people being care for by two married children with one grandchild.