An Age-Old Challenge
Growing old is no joy, but Pearl Weinberg hadn’t realized how awful it could be until the death of her beloved Jacob. Two years had passed, but she often forgot Jacob was gone and set the table for two or bought herring (which she had never liked!) because it was a favorite of his.
It wasn’t just Jacob that she missed. She missed what she was when he was still alive—she missed being his wife. What was more, with Dad” gone, it was getting more and more difficult for Pearl to see herself as “Mom.” Pearl was grateful that she could depend on her son and daughter-in-law, but she would have preferred to be able to be “doing for them” rather than needing them to “do” for her. Her own children still called her “Ma,” but it was her daughter-in-law Sheila who still had children to raise, and Pearl had to remember that when the little ones called for “Ma” they didn’t mean her.
Pearl’s son and daughter-in-law’s house had become the center of family activities of late. Not that Gordon and Sheila weren’t good to her. Pearl knew that Sheila welcomed her company and her help, but it seemed so strange for her to be an assistant in Sheila’s kitchen instead of chief cook and bottle-washer in her own.
Pearl also found that many things she used to enjoy had become difficult. She loved reading and used to buy a new novel every week, but now the words blurred so as to cause eyestrain. “Why do they have to make the print so small?” she wondered.
She had always loved to socialize, but it was harder to get out since the doctor had said, “No driving at night.” Pearl hated to impose on others by asking them to squire her around. So many who would have helped or been companions were gone. Sitting shiva* had become an all-too-frequent part of her social calendar.
When she did manage to get out of the house, it was hard to sit in a room full of people and smile and pretend that she knew what was going on when she caught only faint syllables in the midst of whispers. They seemed content to let her sit quietly even though she had always been a lively conversationalist. Those who did notice how quiet she was attributed it to the loss of her husband rather than the loss of her hearing, and assumed she would once again begin talking and laughing—when she was ready. Ignoring her less-than-sociable behavior seemed the polite thing to do.
Pearl had finally sold the house that she and Jacob had shared for forty years. She knew she’d made a sensible, even a necessary move, but she missed having her three-bedroom, two-bathroom house with the patio. Some of the plants she had given away, but she watched many turn yellow and wither because they could not grow in the apartment. Keepsakes she had cherished seemed to crowd each other out in the new apartment. She never imagined that such a nice place could be so crowded and yet so lonely. She had packed carefully, but cardboard boxes could not hold what was dearest to her—and what they did hold was more than could fit into her freshly painted, thin-walled little apartment. Sure, there were plenty of mirrors to make the place look bigger. In fact, there were too many mirrors. Everywhere Pearl looked, she was confronted with the reflection of some old woman who had somehow managed to trap her soul.
Gordon and Sheila sat quietly together in the front room, the silence between them occasionally broken by the barking of a neighbor’s dog. Their minds raced back and forth between past experiences and present problems. What were they going to do? It seemed that since they lost Dad, Mom was going downhill fast. There were so many questions to answer, so many problems to be solved.
What would be wrong with fixing up the spare bedroom, Gordon thought? After all, his mother had given so much of her life to raise him. He couldn’t bear visiting her in that small, sterile apartment, hearing her talk about Dad like he was still alive. It seemed like all events had stopped happening for his mother when Dad died and she didn’t seem to be able to make herself part of anything that was happening now. Surrounded by a loving family, maybe she would be able to cope better with the loss they all felt. Besides, the tumble she’d taken in the bathtub last week had shaken him. Fortunately, Ma was only bruised, but what if she’d broken her hip with no one there to help her? He felt it was wrong for her to be alone. After all, hadn’t she always been there when he needed her? The children would love having Grandma around. Maybe it would even take some of the burden off Sheila—help her to get out more and have more time to herself.
Sheila loved the fact that Gordon was a good son. And she got along far better with Pearl than most of her friends did with their in-laws. Still, to have Ma move in.…After all, Ma did like to be in charge, especially in the kitchen. And then there were the kids to consider. It seemed like Ma spent half the time instructing Sheila on how to discipline the kids, while the other half she spent spoiling them!
Sheila had always found a good balance between accepting her mother-in-law’s advice on some occasions and firmly standing up to her on others. Now, with Ma failing, she didn’t know if she could continue to draw the line. It’s one thing to tell a loved one to mind her own business. It’s another thing to tell a loved one who is grief stricken and ill to mind her own business. If Ma did move in, Sheila would want her to feel at home, of course. But would it be possible to make her feel at home without letting her take over? Sheila chided herself for being so selfish.
The Weinbergs looked at each other and Gordon spoke for both of them, “What are we going to do about Ma?”
Perhaps the problems of the Weinberg family are very real to you, whether you are facing them now or anticipate dealing with them in the future. Even if the Weinbergs’ situation seems a long way off, realize that if the Messiah tarries and if God grants you a long life, you will one day face the aging of a loved one, and ultimately your own aging. What’s more, in the community of believers we have mishpochah who are dealing with these problems on a daily basis, and we all need to concern ourselves with these family matters.
The problems and challenges of aging involve a number of people, some of whom are bound to be unbelievers. Imagine the tensions that could arise in the Weinberg scenario if Pearl were a believer but Gordon and Sheila were not; or if Gordon and Sheila were believers but Pearl was not. Few of us are so fortunate as to have believing parents and/or adult children.
Whether your role is believing parent or child to unbelieving family, the key to responding appropriately to the difficulties of aging is to understand the process, determine a godly perspective and plan, inasmuch as it is possible, how to respond accordingly.
The Aging Process
“The rocks have grown tall, the near have become distant. Two legs have become three (i.e. a cane), and the peacemaker of the house has ceased”
Coping with aging means coping with many losses. The process of coping with these losses is known as grief. Grief does not necessarily begin at the moment that someone or something we hold dear is suddenly torn from us. For many of us, grief begins the moment we realize that we are going to lose someone or something which we hold dear. But whenever it begins, grief changes us. It causes us to reevaluate who we are in light of the missing piece or pieces of our lives.
Losing a loved one is not the only cause of grief. People who are divorced, people who wanted to marry but didn’t, people who found they could not have children and people who are disabled through illness or accident are just a few examples of people experiencing grief. In other words, the loss of a person’s role—be it a role they actually had or one fervently hoped for—is a very real cause of grief. The loss of health, independence, influence…the loss of being protected or nurtured by parents who now need protection and nurture…all of these things require the painful acceptance, adjustment and reorientation that a grieving person must undergo.
Still, the most difficult blow of aging will usually be the death of a loved one. That terrifying experience is a shock regardless of whether or not it was expected. And it is compounded as not only spouses, but sisters, brothers, friends and co-workers all approach their final years together. They pass out of the aging person’s life one by one, some so quickly and unexpectedly that the bereaved can’t help but wonder who will be the next to go.
As we age, it seems like we have fewer and fewer choices. Some of us will not be able to maintain control of our own bodies, others of us will find that our minds seem to have a will and a destination of their own. Unless we remain focused on the Lord, a cloud of intellectual and spiritual impotence can settle around us and dampen all our dreams for the future.
Adult children who see what is happening to their aging parents will also have feelings of denial and anger associated with their parents’ grief. Moreover, they will probably begin their own grieving process, realizing the relatively short time they have left with their parent or parents. They may well begin to grieve over their own mortality as well. Anticipating their own losses (which a parent’s aging reminds them they will face) causes some children to distance themselves from those who need them most. This can turn the already difficult process of aging into a morbid experience.
Adult children often recoil at the role-reversal which is a natural part of life because they are unprepared. Helplessness to prevent the suffering of parents who were always there to ease their children’s pain can cause those grown children to become frightened and angry. Some feel terribly lonely and vulnerable when faced with the responsibility of making decisions for those who once decided everything for them. Many resent their parent(s) for what they perceive as abandonment. They fail to understand and prepare, be it emotionally or financially, for their new responsibilities. Some fail to such an extent that they abandon their parents to the state, or to some nursing home which they pay off to keep their parent(s) from becoming an excessive burden. Hence the “my children come visit me twice a year” syndrome. That is a crime of which I hope none of us will ever be guilty!
Even when people exercise their responsibility in love, there can be tensions and difficulties. Sometimes when offspring who have children of their own become caretakers of their parents, they feel trapped between the needs and demands of two generations. They might become impatient and irritable with their young children as well as their elderly parents.
Once again, for those whose thoughts are not centered on the Lord, selfishness and its well-deserved accompanying guilt can take over. Thoughts like, “Is this what I have to look forward to?” mortify the adult children who can scarcely believe they could be so mean as to think of their own comforts at a time when Mom and/or Dad is suffering.
Aging involves grief—adjustments to losses and changing roles—for all concerned. A good understanding of grief is crucial to understanding the aging process, whether or not there has been a recent death in the family. Your local bookstore or library will have a selection of books on the subject; it would be helpful for you to choose one if you are not yet familiar with the “grief cycle.”
What the Scriptures Say
As believers, we can face our own aging or the aging of our loved ones with the strength and help of God, knowing that he will make the difference. The Lord is our comfort and our joy whatever the circumstance, but what can we know from Scripture about growing old? You may want to do your own study, but here are some points to get you started:
God demands respect and honor for the elderly; when we fulfill that command, we actually show respect for God himself: “Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:32).
Parents deserve our special respect: “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12).
We are to guard against ingratitude toward aging parents: “Listen to your father, who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old” (Proverbs 23:22).
In contrast, God is pleased when we show gratitude and take responsibility for the debt that cries out to be paid. To meet that obligation in love shows that we don’t just have a say-so faith, but a do-so faith: “But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God” (1Timothy 5:4).
Yeshua himself indicated the importance of proper respect and care for aging parents. He pointed to failure to care for parents as one of the worst examples of how man-made piety undermines God’s commands: “For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ he is not to ‘honor his father’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (Matthew 15:4-6).
If our Messiah so stressed the significance of caring for parents, we need to take the responsibility very seriously indeed. As disciples of Messiah, we must be examples of the generous and loving care God demands.
There is a special responsibility for leaders and pastors toward the elderly. Paul instructed the young pastor Timothy to regard the elderly in the body of Christ with the same kindness and respect he would show to members of his own family: “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father” (1 Timothy 5:1).
In God’s kingdom there is dignity in aging; we need to respond to our own aging and to the elderly with the respect that God commands. As messianic believers, we need to be an example, not only of how to age gracefully, but also of how to care graciously and respectfully for our aging mishpochah. We ought to plan now, as it is difficult to make decisions and develop attitudes when the need surfaces through some crisis.
What can we do, young and old alike, to reflect God’s standards within the messianic community?
For our elders…
You who are our elders should not be content to take a back seat in the community of believers. It is all too easy to feel slighted by the over-zealous and sometimes unthinking youth of the messianic movement. We need our elders…whether or not the need is expressed. We need you for the wisdom you can impart to us and for the nurturing you can give to our young children. Some believers in the messianic community didn’t have the example of godly parents or grandparents. Who will be their examples, their role models of elderly people who love Yeshua?
Nothing brings more cheer to the young than to find “grandparently” people who can share their joy and enthusiasm and live in the “now” instead of “the days when I was young.” It might not always be so easy to bring cheer, but my grandfather, Fred Kendal, had a practice which seemed to work for him. He said that it was important to say five affirmative, happy things for each complaint. By the time you’ve said five things that are a praise to God, you’ll forget what there was to complain about.
We also need the elderly in our midst to remind the mainstream Jewish community that we are not a group of young rebels. We are a movement of old and young alike who know and love Yeshua. We need to hear more from our elderly mishpochah!
Today the A.A.R.P. (American Association of Retired Persons) has demonstrated the strength the elderly can wield in government and in formulating social policy. I would like to propose the formation of M.A.R.P. (Messianic Association of Retired Persons). We need your voice, your lobby, your strength to stand up within the community of believers. We need your wisdom to help us stop the squabbling that is so prevalent among our young, overly ambitious leadership. If you think that you would like to have a part in forming such an organization, we would be happy to hear from you. For more information on what has been done by the secular group, contact A.A.R.P., 1909 K Street N.W., Washington, D.C. 20049.
If your children are believers, you have a right to expect that they will behave toward you in a way that is pleasing to the Lord and honoring to you as their parents. A more difficult situation is when your children are not believers. Do expect them to respect your faith, even if they can’t share it. Many unbelieving children are very respectful and caring toward their parents, but if this is not the case, you cannot expect Scripture to carry the same weight it would with children who are believers.
There may be practical concerns with certain unbelieving offspring. You may be among the minority whose wishes with respect to your faith and finances might be circumvented by children who do not share your concerns or love for the Lord. If you have cause to think that this might happen, it would be wise to take some steps to make sure that your wishes are fulfilled. In the case of certain incapacities due to illness, you would want to make certain that any power of attorney would be in the hands of those who you believe would honor the Lord and your commitment to him. Choose someone who will follow through with your wishes with respect to your settlement of estate and care even through to burial.
When it comes to the matter of arranging for death and burial, let’s be frank. Often, as Jewish believers, we are refused burial in Jewish cemeteries or the Jewish section of a cemetery. Many of those who insist that we have abandoned the Jewish community are ready to shut us out and then point to the separation as though it was our idea, when in fact it was theirs. Steps can and should be taken to secure the kind of interment you feel is appropriate. Some messianic groups have taken steps to secure burial plots. If you have not thought of this, perhaps you might speak to your pastor or spiritual leader to see if such arrangements could be made. We need a chevra kaddisha (“burial society”) for Jewish believers. Perhaps a Messianic Association of Retired Persons would be able to pursue this as part of its responsibilities.
What about witnessing to children and grandchildren who do not yet know the Lord? Most parents have to admit that though they thought so at the time, not everything they taught their children was right or true. If you taught your children that Jesus is not for Jews, now is the time to tell them that you were wrong. At the same time, you should not seek to undermine the authority of your children with respect to their own children. This is a touchy subject. On the one hand, your children have the right to oversee the religious education of their offspring. On the other hand, you should command enough respect within your family to interact with them on the basis of who you are without covering up what you believe. It is important to maintain your influence within the family structure while also respecting your children’s parental authority. For example, if a little one comes to you and says, “Mommy and Daddy say that we’re not supposed to believe in Jesus” you might say something like, “Your mom and dad don’t believe the same things about Jesus as your bubbe/zeyde (or whatever the grandchildren call you). Some day when you are old enough you will have to decide for yourself what you believe.” When answering questions about your faith, you can precede your explanations with “I believe…” and thus speak the truth in love while acknowledging that the rest of the family may not share your convictions.
For children of the aging…
We must remember that the verse “honor your father and mother” does not only apply to children who have yet to leave their parents’ house and authority. That verse is just as applicable to adults who have left their parents’ household long ago. This duty, described as “kibbud av va-em,” or honoring of one’s parents, should be a primary consideration for those of us who believe in Yeshua.
This brings me to an aside: There are those who try to manipulate Jewish believers with the scriptural mandate to honor our parents. It is true that few unbelieving Jewish parents consider themselves honored by their childrens’ belief in Jesus. Yet if we esteem our parents’ wishes more highly than God’s, we dishonor Yeshua, ourselves, and yes, even our parents. It may be necessary and right to sacrifice our creature comforts to honor our parents, but it is never right to compromise our commitment to Jesus. Anyone who insists that God’s commandment calls for you to keep quiet about your faith is concerned about his or her own agenda, not God’s.
As you seek to honor your parents and to cope with the changes that are taking place in their lives, memories become very important. Sit down and take stock of how things have changed; try to view your parents with some balance and perspective. Recall for yourself and for them some of the good times and some of the hard times you’ve weathered together.
If one or both of your parents become unable to care for themselves, you will have to answer the question of how to meet their physical needs. It is a shame to you if you have comfort while your parents’ needs are unmet. (One messianic leader, in pre-marital counseling sessions, tells prospective mates that they should be ready to give 20% of their income toward the care of their in-laws if necessary. If both sets of parents need help, that’s a possible 40% of the couple’s income.) If you have siblings, this is a time to draw together. Caring for aging parents is a privilege and a responsibility that should be shared. Make a list of your parents’ needs. Discuss who can meet those needs and how. Remember that unless your parents are incapable of participating, it should never be presumed that the rest of the family “knows what is best” for them. The younger generation needs to be strong and capable without depriving the elderly of their dignity and their right to make choices.
Many people automatically assume that the only right thing to do is to take their parents into their home. That may be the best answer in some cases, but it is not necessarily right in all cases. For some, having a live-in parent could create marriage problems that would be difficult to solve. For others, it might also seriously strain the relationship with their parent(s). There may not be adequate space to ensure comfort and privacy for all concerned. Some people might be able to modify their home or find a new one, but that is not always possible.
If any of these things would constitute a problem, you need to take steps to provide as much outside help as possible. There are many support services that can be secured, such as cleaning, transportation, meals, part- or full-time nursing, etc. You have to be willing to consider solutions that you may not like. A resource that you might find helpful is a book entitled You and Your Aging Parent, by Barbara Silverstone and Helen Kandel Hyman, published by Pantheon.
Whatever decision you make with respect to your parents, you must make sure that you see the issues clearly. Often, children are motivated by their need for parental approval or fear of rejection, both of which we carry with us throughout our lives.
If your parents are not believers then, of course, your most important motivation should be concern for their spiritual well-being. If they happen to be unsympathetic or angry about your belief in Yeshua, it does not mean you owe them any less.
The easiest thing to be is cynical about your parents making a decision for the Lord. After all, you have known them all your life and you know how closed they have been to the gospel in the past. You wonder how they could ever believe! Just remember that it is never too late for anyone to make a decision for the Lord. Abraham and Sarah were certainly senior citizens when they began to follow the Lord (Genesis 12:4), which is something you might point out to your parents when they try to tell you that they are too old to change their ways!
If you have children, do not try to keep them quiet about the Lord when your folks are around. Grandchildren are wonderful messengers of the gospel. As they learn to love the Lord, they might well recite Scripture verses or sings songs about Yeshua to your parents. You might need to console your children if your parents respond negatively. On the other hand, do not be surprised if your parents will hear from your children what they won’t hear from you. Never give up hope. Never allow yourself to become so cynical that you give up praying for them and witnessing to them for Jesus. Every single year some of our parents discover new life in Yeshua. Maybe this year it will be your parents!
If your parents are believers, then look to involve them in as much activity in the local congregation as possible. Give them chances to tell Bible stories and to help your children with Scripture memory. Remind them that their future is secure in the Lord. Our congregations and fellowship groups need to strike a balance between giving opportunities for leadership to the young, and giving a place of honor and influence to our elders.
Whether or not your aging loved ones know the Lord, your care and concern can help them through this crucial time.
For Young and Old
Let’s remember that while death and disease are part of the Fall and not what God created us for, aging is a part of life that God has blessed and hallowed and honored. Let’s look for ways to reflect God’s desire to honor those who are aging, and to be an honor to him as we age. Do we not have his promise that aging is not a descent into twilight ending in darkness? Getting old can be a joy because God makes every day new, and one day soon he will make you new…in body, mind and spirit. Get ready!
Author’s note: Special thanks to Lynne Halamish for providing some of the inspiration for this article. Mrs. Halamish is a Jewish believer who teaches classes on geriatrics in Israel.
*seven days of mourning
Executive Director, Missionary
David Brickner is executive director of Jews for Jesus. David oversees the world-wide ministry from its headquarters in San Francisco. David received his Master’s degree in Missiology with a concentration in Jewish Evangelism and Judaic Studies from the Fuller School of World Mission. He has authored several books, and has been interviewed on national television shows such as Larry King Live. David’s daughter, Ilana is a recent graduate of Biola. His son, Isaac is on the missionary staff of Jews for Jesus. Isaac and his wife, Shaina, have one daughter, Nora, which makes David part of the grandparent club, a membership he is very proud of. See more here.