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Christians believe that God gave the Ten Commandments as a way of life for his chosen people. Among the ten is the instruction to honor your father and mother (Exodus 20:12). What does that mean? Does it mean to obey what they tell you to do? Is honor a synonym for appreciation or respect? Over the last ten years, I’ve gained a new understanding of how I was to honor my parents. I learned that a central aspect of honoring parents is giving assistance as they become elderly and lose their ability to take care of themselves.

What Does Honoring Parents Mean?

For most of my adult life, I had a vague sense that honoring my parents meant maintaining a relationship with them and having a respectful attitude towards them. I lived out of state, and thought I was honoring them by having pleasant conversations and visits with them. The Israelites who were the original recipients of this commandment would have understood honor differently than I did. They would have understood honor not so much as an attitude but as a commitment to acting in a particular way. Douglas K. Stewart, in his commentary on the book of Exodus, explains it as follows:

“Although this word/commandment requires children to honor their parents in all sorts of ways, large and small, there can be little doubt that its most basic insistence from the point of view of establishing a responsibility that might otherwise be shirked is to demand that children take care of their parents in their parents’ old age, when they are no longer able to work for themselves, as well as to honor whatever their parents have prescribed by way of inheritance for their children.” [1]

We probably do better at the second of these—following parental wishes about dispersing assets and other forms of inheritance—than at the first. Many do take care of parents as they age, but it’s not what most of us expect to be doing.

Responding to the Call

In particular, I didn’t expect to be a caregiver for my parents. I had moved out of state when I was in my early twenties and had visited just two weeks a year for forty years. I expected that, should my parents need more care than they could provide for each other, my brother or sister, who lived nearby, would assess the situation and probably arrange for them to move some place that help was available.

Then I visited one summer and saw my dad’s memory and reasoning ability were getting worse. Mom worked to provide a structure in which he could operate, and they were coping for the time being, but the strain was showing. Shortly before I drove back to my home in North Carolina, my dad asked the question I had not wanted to consider: Would I move back to Michigan and help them?

Of course not, I thought. I had a life of my own, after all. I taught psychology, worked as a therapist, volunteered in the community, was involved in a church, and had plenty of friends. Why would I leave all that?

On the other hand, it was something I could in fact make myself available for. I was living by myself, not responsible for anyone else. I could retire from teaching and make ends meet by working part-time as a therapist while living with my parents in Michigan.

Once I saw both their need and my capacity for helping, my excuses evaporated. Even I, with my well-developed tendency to rationalize doing what I want to do rather than what I should do, couldn’t evade my dad’s request. I was being called, and I responded. I taught one last year, putting in my resignation midway through. The following summer, I moved in with my parents.

My dad died two years later. At that point, my mom probably could have lived a couple years on her own, but even then it seemed best that someone live with her. I had left my full-time job already, so it made sense to stay longer. Mom died six weeks ago. It’s been ten years since I left my job and came to stay with my parents. It would be impossible to reconstruct the remnants of my former life. I’m trying to figure out what’s next for me.

Doing What’s Right

Wherever I go from here, I am glad that I came at my dad’s behest. I’ve had others tell me that not many people would have done what I did. That makes my response sound more noble that it was. I was doing what my parents had taught me by both word and deed: to pay attention to the needs of others and help them when I had the ability to do so. While living with them, I made sure that I had additional caregivers and other sources of support, so I was able to have a balanced life and practice self-care. I understand that most people with aging parents can’t do what I did. Still, for those who have elderly parents in need of help, do know that assisting them with whatever is required—be it physical care, financial assistance, or emotional support—is a way, perhaps the most important way, that you can honor them. Give honor not just in your attitude but in your actions.

[1] Stuart, D. K. (2006). Exodus (Vol. 2, p. 461). Broadman & Holman Publishers.


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