Eldercare has always been a biblical priority, but now we are talking more about it as people live longer and have fewer babies. When elders no longer feel they can live alone, their first choice is almost always to live with family. Most American seniors live with loved ones in private homes and apartments, with only 5 percent needing the care of a hospital, hospice, or nursing home. Families can gain a sense of priority from the commandment: "Honor your father and your mother so that you may live long" (Exod. 20:12). Paul follows up with a warning: "If anyone does not provide for his relatives...he has denied the faith" (1 Tim. 5:8).
As was true in the first century (v. 16), the typical eldercare family has a female "kin-keeper" in the middle of its work; this caregiver is usually a wife, daughter, niece, or daughter-in-law to the frail elder. Her caregiving autumn typically stretches out for about five years before the loved one requires healthcare outside the home or goes on to his or her heavenly home.
The Bible provides sound examples and principles for family-based eldercare. These suggest that under typical circumstances, the elder both gives and receives care. Indeed, the wisest caregivers practice good stewardship: the beautiful balance of giving care and taking care. By preventing burnout, the caregiver protects the elder from active and passive forms of abuse.
In Genesis we read that Joseph and Asenath were caregivers for Joseph’s father, Jacob, who lived his last seventeen years in Egypt. One of Joseph’s most commendable traits is that he spoke openly with his father about his wishes and his impending death. Today many avoid the subject, hoping to protect the aged one, yet any conspiracy of silence diminishes trust. Almost always, the dying person—including the dying child—senses when the end is near and wants the companionship that comes from honesty.
An increasing number of families are drawing on the services of counselors, such as pastors, lawyers, and social workers, who help families mediate disputes and alternatives for eldercare. (See eldercaremediators.com.) This trend highlights the need for skills in giving biblical counsel.
Dr. Jeffrey Watson (DMin, 1985) holds a PhD in Health Education with a doctoral certificate in Gerontology. He has served as a visiting professor for DTS’s DMin program in Dallas and Guatemala City. This information is excerpted from Eldercare and the Christian Family. You can read his article, "The Nicodemus Question," in this issue of Kindred Spirit at www.dts.edu/ks.