Care for Your Elderly Parents
Ensure Everything is in Order
While our sages warn us not to distinguish between mitzvos — not to decide which are important and which are less so —they also say that honoring our parents is one of the greatest mitzvos in the Torah.
It may seem intuitive to honor the people who gave us life, but this mitzvah requires guidance, especially when our parents are elderly.
Are we obligated to care for them ourselves? May we hire someone else to do it for us? What if our relationship with our parents causes us emotional distress? What if it disrupts the management of our household?
(It should be noted that maintaining a healthy relationship with a rav is an important aspect of maintaining a healthy relationship with one’s parents. Family relationships can be complex, and a rav’s advice regarding specific circumstances is crucial.)
In general, when keeping this mitzvah, we must bear in mind that it has two aspects: the actions we must perform for our parents and the attitude we must have toward them.
Halacha states that if we are unable to personally perform the actions of kibud av v’em, or if someone else can do them better than we can, we may delegate those responsibilities.*
The attitude of kibud av v’em, however, is ours alone — and it is non negotiable. We owe our parents honor not because they treated us well; in fact, they may not have. We owe them honor because they gave us life.
Part of this attitude of honor involves respecting what matters to our parents, especially as they grow older.
Parents in general need the following:
- To know that you regard them as the head of the family. Rabbi Moshe Hauer, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, once gave a lecture that had been promoted with the title, “When the Child Becomes the Parent.” He walked up to the podium, and started the talk by saying, “Everyone needs to know that the child never becomes the parent. The parent is always the parent, and the child is always the child.”
This is true no matter how much help — physical, financial, or emotional — the parent may need.
- To feel relevant. Especially in today’s society, which marginalizes older people, they need to feel their wisdom and life experience is valuable to their children and grandchildren. If they are physically disabled, this is even more important.
- To feel secure. Most people want to hold onto their independence for as long as possible, and fear what will happen when they can no longer care for themselves. Letting our parent know that we will care for them and help them with whatever they need can give them tremendous peace of mind.
- To not feel like a burden. If we care for every last one of our parent’s needs but make it known that doing so is burdensome to us, we dishonor them.
- To see that their children love and honor each other. Fundamental to a parent’s sense of self is feeling they have created a solid family. Dynamics in families differ, but the more siblings show achdus, unity, the more the parent feels at ease with themselves.
Is it difficult to maintain this attitude at all times? Almost certainly. Kibud Av v’Eim is not only one of the greatest mitzvos, the Gemara acknowledges it to be the most difficult.
Honoring and caring for one’s aging parents? Even more difficult.
But honoring our parents brings us both spiritual and material reward. Hashem considers it equivalent to honoring Him (Kiddushin 30b); He also grants us long life.
The earthly reward for this mitzvah is explicitly stated in the Torah: “Honor your father and your mother, as Hashem your God commanded you, so that your days may be lengthened, and it may go well with you, in the land Hashem, your God gives you.” (Devarim 5:16)
A difficult mitzvah with an extraordinary reward.
* There are certain aspects of care a person is prohibited from doing for a parent. It is preferable to find someone other than a child to perform them. As always, your rav is your best guide for what to do in specific circumstances.
These tasks include:
- Drawing their blood, including for blood glucose checks. Unlike the other items, this is a direct Torah prohibition. Drawing blood includes any action that may leave them with a bruise.
- Bathing them
- Waking them
- Arguing with them, even about taking their medication or following any other medical advice
- Physically restraining them
Ensure your parent has a halachic living will.
Caring for Aging Parents11:21
Honoring Elderly Parents: A Medical and Halachic Discussion1:13:41
Agudath Israel Convention
Aging Parents: Important Issues44:01
An interesting mix of Torah sources and practical advice
Rabbi Dr. Zev Wiener
An honest and compassionate article about balancing the responsibilities to parents and children.
Rabbi Shraga Simmons
A concise yet thorough explication of the mitzvah, including its practical application. Contains extensive footnotes and links to short audio audio classes
Rabbi Shraga Simmons is the co-founder of aish.com
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Caring for Elderly Parents