How to Honor the Elderly
Dr. Julie Barrier
How do you treat your elders? Your aging parents, your frail grandmother, your annoying aunt with dementia? Do you consider them an inspiration, an inconvenience, or both?
God is serious about giving honor to the elderly in your midst. The first commandment of the “Big 10” reads:
“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” Exodus 20:11
The Apostle Paul expounds upon this imperative by including the promise of God’s favor:
“Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Eph 6:2-3.
Moses gives the Israelites a stern warning. If they fear God, they will show respect:
“You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. Leviticus 19:32
Jacob was not the perfect father. Deception, favoritism, human trafficking and rape tainted the patriarch’s past. His eleven sons lied to their father for decades about the death of Joseph.
However, we witness a transformational scene when Joseph summons his aged father to Egypt. He forgave his brothers and they repented. The family was healed. Though Jacob’s son dishonored him, Pharaoh, the pagan ruler, knew how to revere Joseph’s elderly father.
Genesis 47:7-12 reads:
“Then Joseph brought in Jacob his father and stood him before Pharaoh, and Jacob blessed Pharaoh… Then Joseph settled his father and his brothers and gave them a possession in the land of Egypt, in the best of the land, in the land of Rameses, as Pharaoh had commanded…. And Joseph provided his father, his brothers, and all his father's household with food, according to the number of their dependents.”
Jacob died in Egypt, full of years. The Egyptians honored Joseph’s father. They took forty days to embalm Jacob. His family and friends carried him back to his homeland:
“So Joseph went up to bury his father; all Pharaoh’s officials went with him—the senior courtiers of his household, all the senior officials of the land of Egypt, all Joseph’s household, his brothers, and his father’s household…the great entourage mourned his death with bitter sorrow.” Genesis 50:7-8
Joseph truly honored Jacob.
Conversely, Ham dishonored his father Noah. He suffered dire consequences from his blatant disregard for his father’s dignity as recounted in Genesis 9:18-23.
“The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (Now Ham was the father of Canaan.)
Noah, a man of the soil, began to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of the wine, he got drunk and uncovered himself inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers who were outside. Shem and Japheth took the garment and placed it on their shoulders. Then they walked in backwards and covered up their father’s nakedness. Their faces were turned the other way so they did not see their father’s nakedness.
When Noah awoke from his drunken stupor he learned what his youngest son had done to him. So he said, “Cursed be Canaan!”
No one is perfect. Elders are fallible. The longer we live, the more mistakes we make. We must honor our elders because it is the will of God. It is our privilege.
So what do we learn from a historical perspective?
"The Romans made use of their elderly and had faith in their wisdom and experience," Cicero wrote "…there is assuredly nothing dearer to a man than wisdom, and though age takes away all else, it undoubtedly brings us that."
Why does the treatment of the elderly vary so widely among human societies?”
Pulitzer prize winner Jared Diamond writes:
“The idea that it’s human nature for parents to make sacrifices for their children and, in turn, for their grown children to sacrifice for their aging parents — turns out to be a “naïve expectation,” said Diamond. This assumption, he said, ignores undeniable conflicts of interest between generations.
He further stated, “Parents and children both want a comfortable life — there are limits to the sacrifices that they’ll make for each other.” And from a scientific perspective, “It may under some circumstances be better for children to abandon or kill their parents and for the parents to abandon or kill their children.”
Those circumstances include life’s often heart-wrenching realities — from the threat of starvation among indigenous tribes to the difficult choices posed by modern societies’ life-prolonging medical care, Diamond said.
Traditional nomadic tribes often end up abandoning their elderly during their unrelenting travels. The choice for the healthy and young is to do this or carry the old and infirm on their backs — along with children, weapons and necessities — through perilous territory. Also prone to sacrificing their elderly are societies that suffer periodic famines, like Paraguay’s Aché Indians, who assign certain young men the task of killing old people with an ax or spear, or burying them alive.
“We react with horror at these stories, but upon reflection, what else could they do? The people in these societies are faced with a cruel choice.”
“Many of you have already faced or will face a similar ordeal when you are the relative responsible for the medical care of an old person — the one who has to decide whether to halt further medical intervention or whether to administer painkillers and sedatives that will have the side effect of hastening death.”
Diamond observes, that many societies treat their elderly better than Americans do. In some cultures, he said, children are so devoted that when their aging parents lose their teeth the children will pre-chew their food. A closer look at how traditional societies value (or don’t value) their old people might teach us what to emulate and what to avoid.
America’s “cult of youth” emphasizes the virtues of independence, individualism and self-reliance. Older adults suffer as they inevitably lose some of these traits. Our work ethic, “…which holds that if you’re no longer working, you’ve lost the main value that society places on you” causes depression and low self-esteem. Retirement means losing social relationships, which, coupled with America’s high mobility, leaves many old people hundreds or even thousands of miles away from longtime friends and family.”
So how do we honor our elders? How do we bless and encourage them?
1. Include them.
Time with extended family is key. God said, “It is not good for man to be alone…” Celebrate birthdays, holidays and anniversaries. Let them hold the babies…help with meals…assist with handyman tasks as they are able.
2. Ask for advice
Appreciate their deeper understanding of human relationships and their ability to think across wide-ranging disciplines, to strategize, and share what they’ve learned.
3. Encourage them.
Understand their changing strengths and weaknesses as they age and affirm them. Thank them for their love and support.
4. Pray for them.
Seniors grieve over lost health, lost loved ones, lost friends. They need God’s power and protection. Pray God will open doors for them to be used in His kingdom work.
…For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me.’ Matthew 25:35-40