Although the inclusion of dependent elderly parents can greatly enrich family life, it can also be a psychological, social, and financial burden. As more people live longer, an increasing percentage of health care costs occur in the later years of life. The statistics are staggering. According to the 1990 census, thirteen million Americans were age seventy-five or older. It is estimated that by the year 2040, one in every five Americans will be sixty- five or older. This is approximately seventy million people. There is concern whether Social Security will have sufficient funds to take care of the needs of the elderly in the future.
The cost of placing an elderly person in a convalescent home averages between $30,000 and $50,000 a year. A couple who have worked and saved money over a lifetime may see their nest egg vanish in a matter of years. The inability of such couples and their families to meet the costs is merely the tip of the economic iceberg and a serious concern for our nation.
It is worth noting a gender gap when it comes to taking care of elderly parents. Studies consistently show that adult daughters spend more time giving assistance to their elderly parents than do sons (Sarkisian and Gerstel 2004). A study by Sechrist et al. (2011) found that the quality of the adult daughter–elderly mother relationship was greater when there was greater similarity in religiousness. Women tend to bear more caregiving costs than
men and receive more rewards than their spouses in the caregiving process. Although some of the gender difference involves employment obligations, we believe sons as well as daughters need to share the responsibility so that women are not overly burdened in the caregiving process and so that men can experience the rewards.
In chapter 1, we discussed the ideal of a mature bilateral commitment in which the unconditional love shown by parents to their children is reciprocated when the parents age and become socially, emotionally, and physically dependent on their adult children. When this happens, family life has truly come full circle. The Bible speaks of the family’s responsibility to care for its most needy members. That this includes elderly parents is made clear in 1 Timothy 5:4: “If a widow has children or grandchildren, they should first learn their religious duty to their own family and make some repayment to their parents; for this is pleasing in God’s sight.” Lest the reader fail to get Paul’s message, he continues with this warning in verse 8: “And whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
In the social economy of the early church, it was primarily the responsibility of the family rather than the church to care for the elderly. First Timothy 5:16 reads: “If any believing woman has relatives who are really widows, let her assist them; let the church not be burdened, so that it can assist those who are real widows.” The reason given is that the church will then be better able to care for the dependent elderly who do not have family. The clear social ethic found in Scripture is that we are to care for our own family members as well as for those in need through the community of faith.
Terry Hargrave (2005) develops three principles for biblically caring for one’s parents. They are (1) responsibility, (2) openhandedness, and (3) evenness. Responsibility focuses on “the honor, respect, and cooperation between parent and child.” This devotion “demonstrates how to humbly work together for future generations, and it reminds us how we are expected to do the same in our relationship to God” (73). As parents have invested in their children, children show honor and respect by caring for their parents. Part of this respect is providing care and facilitating the parent’s responsibility for things they can manage. Openhandedness is about giving to others what they need, while he or she is also able to receive God’s blessings at the same time. Out of the abundance of God’s gift of grace, one does not give grudgingly. Evenness is about finding harmony in the midst of stress. This
harmony is balance; caring for elderly parents gradually makes more and more demands on the adult children. Considering these three principles together, caregiving is about (1) reciprocity through respecting both the dependent elderly and the caregiving child; (2) balance with the other obligations in the caregiver’s life such as spousal, vocational, and parental ones; and (3) honest understanding of both the caregiver’s ability and the dependent’s needs.
Within reason, the elderly person should have a say in the matter, and their preferences should be taken into account. The elderly parent must be treated with dignity at all times.
Caring for elderly parents is both a privilege and a priority for Christian families and the church community. Granted, making decisions about how to best care for elderly parents is a complex process, and we must do so with respect, honor, and integrity.
Regardless of the social structural arrangements used to care for the elderly, fostering independent living is an important goal. In addressing theological issues in caring for the elderly, Balswick, King, and Reimer (2016) suggest that the family create zones of proximal capabilities. In chapter 7, we referred to Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development concept to describe the range of skills to accomplish in assisting children. In a similar way, a zone of proximal capability helps establish the range of skills an elderly person can accomplish on his or her own or with the help and support of others. As a mirror image of empowerment, family members will increase the scaffolds or helping structures as needed to allow the elderly to continue to be as independent as possible. Sometimes outside caregivers can empower and model patience because family members have a hard time seeing a loved one struggle in an attempt to be independent.
Given the biblical emphasis on community, one can argue that the entire community, rather than merely a few family members, is responsible for the elderly. Some religious groups and denominations are well known for establishing excellent retirement communities to provide for the aging. The overarching biblical principle here is that family members care for their own families. How this is done, within the household or within an elder-care community, depends on social, psychological, physiological, and economic circumstances. God can honor a number of alternative social arrangements. Both approaches—household and community care—have unique strengths and limitations. The important thing is that the dependent elderly be nurtured
and loved unconditionally as family, regardless of who is providing the day- to-day care.
Gender and Sexuality Identity in Family Life
This section focuses on two major sources of personal identity: one’s gender and one’s sexuality. In chapter 11, we discuss the impact of changing gender roles and relations on the family in our society. We examine current explanations of gender differences and then offer a Christian viewpoint. We also offer practical ideas on how Christian families and the church can provide leadership in this area.
In chapter 12, we expound on the fact that God created us as sexual beings and pronounced this very good. God intended that we be authentic and whole in our sexual relationships. After noting sociocultural influences on the development of our sexuality, we present a theological understanding. Finally, focusing on four important aspects of sexual expression—sex and singlehood, masturbation, sexual preference, and marital sexuality—we offer some practical guidelines for achieving wholeness in a broken world.
Changing Gender Roles and Relations
The Impact on Family Life
In most societies throughout history, knowing how to be a man or a woman was taken for granted. This is certainly not the case today! Our society is embroiled in debates over what constitutes masculinity and femininity and what the appropriate roles are for each gender. This redefinition of gender roles has caused significant shifts in family life. The marital dyad, where husbands and wives are struggling with conflicting definitions of marital roles, has had to make the most adjustments. Redefining gender roles also extends to parent-child relationships in determining how to relate to and raise sons and daughters in an age when traditional definitions of manhood and womanhood have changed.
In this chapter, we extend our discussion from gender roles to gender relations. Doing so challenges us to understand family life beyond mere definition of roles to relationships established between the genders both within the family and the wider sociocultural context. The four biblical relationship principles (covenant, grace, empowerment, intimacy) and trinitarian theology bring us to the conclusion that relationship surpasses roles. A great deal of flexibility in roles continues to be structured and renegotiated throughout family life.
When it comes to gender relationships, we agree with Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen that we are created from the beginning as males and females for sociability and mutual dominion, equal dignity and mutual respect. The cultural mandates and other dimensions of image bearing in Genesis 1:26–28 are given to both the man and woman, male and female. Together we are
called to be God’s earthly agents (not separately or hierarchically or in competition, but cooperatively) for engaging in rightful relationships with each other and our world for God’s glory (Van Leeuwen et al. 1993).