Elizabeth and her husband, George, intended to spend the next twenty years overseas when they left their home country. They have served overseas for five years. They love their work, and with three small children they have their hands full. After an email and follow-up phone call they are having to re-evaluate their plans. Elizabeth’s father has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. His job is threatened, but for now her mom can continue to support the family.
Sally and Ben are long-timers overseas. They raised their children on the field, and as empty-nesters, they now look forward to some years with fewer family responsibilities. That changed suddenly when Ben’s mother fell and broke her hip. His mother has been a widow living on her on for a few years. What are they to do?
Why talk about aging parents with those who are living and working overseas? Because either now, or in the future, you may have to help care for your own elderly relatives, and that will influence what you can and cannot do overseas.
Many of us understand “leave and cleave” to mean leaving our parents’ home. Accepting the call to follow Christ, means “not looking back.” But Paul wrote to Timothy that if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel. (I Tim. 5:8) Where does all this leave us when our parents can no longer take care of themselves?
With our move to a new community, I’ve suddenly become aware of the elderly. Many in our condominium complex are retired or widowed, but healthy and active and able to live on their own.
But others are not so fortunate. Our realtor told us about her mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. She needed a new nursing home after a short stay in the hospital, but no facility would take her because she is a “screamer.” This poor, Christian woman screams nearly non-stop. Since this is so disturbing to everyone around her, no home wants to accept her.
Near the same time, a friend called and asked if I could go help watch her mom. This dear woman has been in an assisted living facility. Recently she began to wander. She is quite healthy, can take care of her own personal needs, dresses neatly, and can carry on a good conversation. But when left unattended, she walks out the door and onto the street. After numerous rescues by the staff, they now require that someone stay with her during the day.
These two Christian families have Christian parents in need of care they cannot give. They never expected to be in this situation, but now they have to find ways to protect and care for their aging parents. Even living quite nearby, they had difficulty finding appropriate facilities and helpers.
Living overseas creates a dilemma. We want to honor and care for our parents the best way we can and yet also fulfill the calling we have from God. Knowing our parents needs will help us make good choices.
Aging in the West almost always means expensive medications, eyeglasses and hearing aids. Some of these needs are covered by Medicare and Medicaid, but the red tape to receive the help is totally overwhelming. Failing to carefully read the small print can mean the loss of insurance coverage or limiting the amount of social security payments.
At the same time the elderly become less mobile, losing their driver’s licence or needing a walker or a wheelchair, they have many more doctors’ appointments. Housekeeping and meal preparation become chores they can no longer do for themselves.
If memory is an issue, taking their medicine in the correct dosage and at the correct time, becomes a nightmare. A friend’s mother couldn’t remember if she had taken her heart medicine or not, so she took them every time she ate a meal. When she ran out of her prescription weeks too early, they learned what she was doing. Fortunately it didn’t precipitate a heart attack before they could stop her.
The most pervasive need of the aging is companionship. Many elderly have out-lived their friends. Families are often spread quite far and visit infrequently. When they are widowed, their partner of many years is no longer with them. Providing for companionship is difficult from overseas.
Things Others Can Do When You Can’t
Your parents, for physical or mental reasons, may not be able to live in the family home until they die. Consider helping them move while they are still able to have a say about where they move. I know first-hand how downsizing can disorient you. We just moved from a large townhouse to a smaller condo. Your parents will adjust better to a new place if they can have a say in what things they keep and where they are placed.
Assisted living homes with graduated care may be a good choice for parents with an adequate income. In these facilities they can have as little, or as much, assistance as needed. They will also have the companionship of others their age.
Sometimes a family member will offer to have your parents live with them. This option provides personal care for your parents in a family setting. Companionship is the greatest benefit, and transportation to doctor appointments, help with medications, and nutrition are easily supervised. However, as much as your brother or sister may want to continue caring for your parents, the time may come when you will need to encourage and help them find a nursing facility. If it is near their home, they will still be able to visit as much as they want without having to do the exhausting, physical care round-the-clock.
Hospice helps when patients are terminal. They not only serve patients remaining at home, but also those in nursing homes and hospitals. Providing equipment and know-how in pain relief, counseling for patients, family, and friends, and being a liaison relationship with doctors are their specialties.
What you can do
Keep in close contact with your parents. Write and send cards and pictures often. Call as often as you can. If you have trouble spending the money for phone calls, consider this. Would you spend the money to make a phone call for your work? Your phone call to your parents is as important to Him as calls for your work.
While they are still healthy and alert, sending some financial aid to help them meet increasing costs with diminished resources may be the thing to do.
Be ready to make a short trip home at a time you are needed. When my husband’s mom was going to have open heart surgery, he made an emergency trip from Nigeria to her home in the States. He stayed with her for a couple weeks, so he was able to have some quality time with her after her surgery.
Some months after his return, she died. The Red Cross and the Consul at the American Embassy, got word to us. The phone system in the country was down at the time, but the Consul was able to arrange a phone call to the family. They were well able to take care of the funeral arrangements and encouraged Mike to remain in Nigeria. They said his visit to his mom when she was alert had helped her so much. That was when she really needed him.
Believe God for additional finances to share with your parents when needed. Because you sacrifice to help your parents, God will always faithfully meet your needs.
Furlough can be such an extremely busy time. If you don’t plan time with your parents, you won’t have time. Plan to spend sufficient time with your parents to observe their needs first-hand. Spending time while they are alert and able to talk will provide time for remembering and reconciliation where needed.
If a time comes when you are needed to take care of your parents for a longer time, seek God for ways to continue supporting your field of service while you remain home for a period of time. Perhaps you can write materials for those on your field or raise additional funds for nationals. Seek a local church to serve, as well as attend.
When PWs first went to West Africa, they often packed their belongings in their casket because they knew they would never be able to go home again. Today with communications and travel as easy as they are, you do not usually have to make the hard decision to live overseas the rest of your life and leave your parents to live and die on their own.
The first commandment with a promise is to honor your father and mother that you might have a long life. God will honor you for the sacrifices you must make during this period of time. And usually the time will come that you can live overseas full-time again, even if you have to be home for a while.