The Dilemma of Aging Parents
“What will you do when your parents are old and need help?” I remember being asked this questionwhen we were first discovering support to go overseas more than 20 years ago. I cannot remember what I said, but I distinctly remember thinking, We will cross that bridge when we get to it. Over the years, both of my in-laws have passed away, but it was my mother’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease that made me feel like we had arrived at that bridge. In one sense, it was not a shock. Because significant time elapsed between visits, the changes we saw in her were perhaps more startling to us than to others who saw her every day. This woman, who for years had directed a summer girls’ camp, coordinated women’s ministries in her church, and taught Bible studies, began to struggle with setting the table and following a dinner conversation. So while the eventualdiagnosis did not surprise me, the sense of grief and loss caused by this devastating disease has been tremendous.
As I have considered the question of staying on the field, I have struggled with how to honor both the call of God on my life and my responsibility to my parents. Scripture speaks to the importance of obedience in both areas, and at times these have felt like conflicting principles. While I cannot say that I know the answers, I am learning a lot in the process.
When someone dies, everyone understands the importance of grieving, but chronic illness and deterioration involve a grieving process as well. In many ways, my mother is gone. Even though she is still alive, she no longer acts, talks, thinks, or responds in the ways she did ten years ago. I have found that I need to allow space in my life to grieve those losses as her deterioration progresses. When we are on the field, it seems out of place to grieve someone who has not died and that no one around me knows (besides my family), but that does not make it any less needed! I am thankful for friends on both sides of the ocean who have listened to me grieve the losses that Alzheimer’s has brought our family.
Along with allowing space for grieving, it has been important to find ways to continue to be involved in my parents’ lives. Deciding how much of our time, energy, and financial resources to invest in being available to them has been challenging. After seeing the wide variety of choices that other global workers in similar situations have made, I have concluded that there is no one right answer to these questions. A combination of factors has influenced our decisions in this area:
- Current needs of my parents. Sometimes those needs have been met by support over the phone and other times by a trip to look into resources that would be helpful to them.
- Rate at which the disease is progressing. While this is always hard to gauge, and I cannot visit every time there is a change, it has been important to spend time with my mom while she still recognizes me.
- Needs of our family. One summer I combined a trip to see my parents along with college visits with our high school daughter.
- Ministry responsibilities. Over the years, I have come to see God’s calling as inclusive of both ministry on the field and ministry to family. While I do not take ministry responsibilities here lightly, staying involved in the needs of my parents reflects the value we place on honoring and caring for parents, a scriptural value that is also an important part of the Asian culture.
- Availability of others to help. Although my brother does not live near our parents, his availability in emergencies makes us more comfortable with being so far away. We have also been grateful for people in my parents’ church who have come alongside when neither my brother nor I could be there.
- Finances. This is a question of both availability and stewardship, especially with our own children in college.
- A lot of prayer! Ultimately, it is God who meets the needs of our families. I need His wisdom to know when to physically be with my parents and when others are to fill that role.
We have just returned to the field from a year of home assignment living near my parents, a year that was so evidently God’s timing. My mother still recognizes me, but as the year progressed, she was less and less able to engage in activities she had enjoyed. I will cherish memories of walks, going out for ice cream, and sharing meals. A friend from church who visits shut-ins often included my mother in that ministry, and I was glad to have been able to be able to join them a couple of times and see the joy that brought my mother. My father needed cardiac bypass surgery partway through the year, which gave me the opportunity to care for my mom and to see firsthand the extent of her deterioration. Toward the end of the year, my father and I investigated home-health resources and Alzheimer’s assisted-living facilities. Throughout this journey, God has been teaching me to trust Him for His provision for their needs and His direction for where we need to be at each season of life. I have come to a place of peace (most days) and believe that we are where God wants us and that we are also providing as much help and support to my parents as we can.