Two newspaper articles recently caught my attention. The first was about the rise of “elder abuse” due to an aging baby boomer generation. The second was about a local assisted living facility. This home was inspected and licensed by the state, yet an employee of the facility, the adult son of the owner/operator, was a convicted felon. A doctor treating one of the elderly residents learned after completing her exam that she was afraid to go back to the group home. Upon investigation it was discovered that all eight of the elderly residents in the home were being verbally, emotionally, and physically abused. One poor man spent his entire day, every day, sitting quietly in the corner of a couch, afraid to speak or go into the kitchen for food out of fear of being shoved and yelled at. Many of the elderly in our society are being victimized by those younger and stronger than them. Sometimes it is by strangers such as unethical salespeople, or telemarketers. However, increasingly, it is by their own children and grandchildren.
Some sociologists are blaming this trend on the increasing pressure being placed on what they call “sandwich” families. This is the situation in which there is a family trying to raise their own children, but finding themselves in the position of having to care for their elderly parents as well. The reasoning is that adult children are becoming resentful of their elderly parents because of the added time and financial burden. A contributing factor to the rise in “sandwich” families is that we are living longer due to advances in medicine. While these reasons may be a contributing factor, I can suggest some other reasons as well.
The term “sandwich” family is just another way of saying multi-generational family, a term that describes the family structure of many, if not most, families in the world. However, there is a connotation in the term “sandwich” family that seems to indicate a self-centered worldview. The term suggests a couple caught between two generations each making demands on them. There is no resentment towards the kids; after all, we love to spoil our kids. Yet, when an aging parent needs our care it is viewed as an intrusion and an inconvenience. We live in a culture that values and exalts youth and strength, but easily dismisses and discards the frail and the aged. Does God value the 16-year-old girl more than He does the 82-year-old woman?
God answers that question in Ezekiel 18:4 when He says, “Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine.” As God values a soul, so should we, regardless of age. The first indication that we are to honor the aged is found in the fifth commandment in Exodus 20:12. We are to honor our father and mother. We need to understand that God did not write this to little children, He wrote it to adults. He repeats this command in Leviticus 19:3 when He says to the adult nation of Israel, “Every one of you shall revere his mother and father.” Again, in Proverbs 23:22 He says, “Listen to your father who begot you, and do not despise your mother when she is old.”
Notice that none of these commands are conditional. The honor and the reverence we are to accord our parents is not predicated upon their behavior. I point this out because some of the abuse and disrespect that the elderly experience may be the result of raising their children to be selfish and self-centered. It may be due to a lack of love for their children as they were raising them, or selfishness and self-centeredness on the part of the parent while their children were growing up. There is the principle of reaping as you sow here. However, in spite of what kind of parents our elderly were, we have the responsibility to God to honor and reverence them.
Also, it is not just our own parents that we must treat with respect; it is all of the aged. Further down in Leviticus 19 at verse 32 God says, “You shall rise before the gray headed and honor the presence of an old man, and fear your God.” We often confuse the slowness and frailty of the elderly with stupidity. To do so is a result of the pride and arrogance of youth. Solomon tells us in Ecclesiastes 11:9 – 12:8 that we should rejoice in our youth, but also remember our Creator before the days come when we become slow and frail.
Having said that, a gray head is not always synonymous with wisdom. There is such a thing as a foolish old man just as there is a foolish youngster. Yet, again, this command is not conditional. An excellent example for us to follow is the one of Elihu in Job. 32:1-9. Elihu has sat patiently and listened to the discourse between Job and his three friends. Verse 4 tells us, “because they were years older than he, Elihu had waited to speak to Job.” Listen to his approach and attitude:
So Elihu, the son of Barachel the Buzite, answered and said: “I am young in years, and you are very old; Therefore I was afraid, And dared not declare my opinion to you. I said, ‘Age should speak, And multitude of years should teach wisdom.’ But there is a spirit in man, And the breath of the Almighty gives him understanding. Great men are not always wise, Nor do the aged always understand justice. “Therefore I say, ‘Listen to me, I also will declare my opinion.’ Indeed I waited for your words, I listened to your reasonings, while you searched out what to say. I paid close attention to you; And surely not one of you convinced Job, Or answered his words— vs. 6-12.
We find Paul commanding Timothy to follow this same example in 1st Timothy 5:1 when he tells him “Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father.”
Our treatment of the elderly is a reflection upon us and upon our society. The way we treat the aged, the care we give them, says something about us. Does our behavior honor them and honor God, or does it honor us?