This week, a friend’s mother passed away after a long illness. My friend dutifully traveled back and forth from Atlanta to New York for many months; doing everything she could to respect her mother’s needs, comply with her wishes, and preserve her dignity…right up to the very end.
Last week, a different friend rushed from Atlanta to Houston fearing that her father – suffering from numerous health issues for years – was about to pass away. Although he thankfully did not, she still was forced to embark upon a process of decision making and negotiating to comply with his wishes and preserve his dignity.
For the past four years, my husband and his siblings have sensitively dealt with their father’s mental and physical decline as a result of Parkinson’s. In an effort to give their mother freedom from 24/7 caregiving, and to ensure the proper care of their father, the “kids” took charge of selling their childhood home and moving their parents to a facility that offered independent living, as well as skilled nursing care.
Judaism talks about honoring and respecting parents. The fifth commandment does not say, “Thou shalt love and obey thy parents”; rather it tries to communicate, “give honor to and treat with respect.” The statement implies actions and not feelings. By removing feelings from the equation, one is commanded to behave this way regardless of how one feels about it!
So what does this mean in the context of the scenarios above? Dealing with the needs of aging parents is complicated. For many children, it’s extremely difficult psychologically to cope with the idea or reality of a parent who, for one reason or another, has become mentally or physically incapacitated. For others, these situations may cause unexpected financial or logistical burdens. In some cases, a history of dysfunctional or abusive parent-child relationships may stand in the way of a child’s ability or willingness to “do the right thing” for a parent.
As with most mitzvot, honoring and respecting parents involves doing so:
- Directly and personally (not through an intermediary);
- Willingly and quickly (i.e. “Running to do a mitzvah”);
- By demonstrating consideration, caring, and compassion; and
- By showing a positive attitude.
It’s important to note, however, that children – grown or otherwise – are not to be treated like a parent’s servants and should not allow themselves to be manipulated by the parent. Rabbi Elliott Dorff, ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary, further cautions:
“[If] children cannot realistically care for their parents themselves, or if the parents would be better off and happier living in their own home or in a facility for the elderly, then placing them in such a facility is not only permissible but possibly the most desirable option, provided that the tone with which this arrangement is made and carried out is one of honor, respect, and ideally even love. Such an attitude must be expressed in concrete actions by making sure that the living arrangements for one’s parents meet their physical and psychological needs as much as possible and, most especially, by visiting and/or calling them reasonably frequently.”
Although my own mother would say, “God forbid!”, Rabbi Dorff also proposes the notion of aging or ailing parents living in one of their children’s homes. He suggests that this arrangement could provide “an opportunity for the grandchildren to have continuing interaction with them [the grandparents] and possibly to help in their care. This graphically models what the Jewish norms of honor and respect are all about, an important lesson for the grandchildren to learn for the future care of the adult children.” Just something to think about, Mom…
My generation – especially those of us with children who are not yet independent – is increasingly finding itself caring for aging or ailing parents. That’s why we are called the “sandwich generation.”
So what are we to do? Honor and respect our parents by being there and doing things for them when they – admittedly or not – need us most.
 Dorff, Elliot N. Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics. Philadelphia: JPS, 2003, pp. 140-141.