draft_lens20564135module165777721photo_135995604209-z-a-aHe gently puts down his fork and thoughtfully looks around the table. The expression on his face indicates he’s confused. Not saying a word, he flaps his hand in the air to get the attention of my mother. He would use words if he had any… but he doesn’t. What he does have is hand motions and gestures, which are minimal at best. Deaf since birth, my grandfather’s sign language skills have been rapidly declining as his dementia gets worse and worse. Signaling to my mother, he asks who we are. My mom explains that my wife and I, along with our two little girls, are family and that we have come to visit for the weekend. Still slightly perplexed, my grandfather John slowly nods his head. He picks up his fork and continues to eat.

I pause from my meal to watch this interaction play out. When it’s over, my mother mentions to me that sometimes my grandfather doesn’t even remember who she is or that she’s his daughter. I start to ask her how that makes her feel, but before I can finish my sentence a cackling laugh from across the table interrupts our conversation.

I shift my focus across the table to find that the laugh is followed by an ear to ear toothless grin from my great aunt Betty. Ever since we arrived she hasn’t stopped smiling and laughing, not because she is overcome with joy by our visit, but she too is experiencing the onset of dementia. With a smile and a slightly disconnected look in her eyes, she tells me for the fourth time… “I like you.”

Next to Betty sits her twin sister Billy, and Billy’s husband Darrell, my other grandparents. Billy’s countenance couldn’t be more different from Betty’s. Billy notices her twin sister is not the same woman from a few years ago, but has had a hard time accepting and comprehending how dementia has changed her. She also is holding on to some anger from when Betty displaced her and my grandfather from their home of 20 years after accidentally burning down their house with a blanket and space heater. As Betty points her boney finger at me and laughs, Billy tries to rein her in and call her attention back to the food in front of her.

As we sit at the dinner table in my parents house, I am struck with the realization that this meal is an every day experience for them. This meal is their “new normal.” After having been empty-nesters for a few years, their nest is once again full. Yes. That’s right. My parents took in four, yes, four aging seniors. Three of which are parents, and one is my dad’s aunt. Two have dementia. One has cancer. One is deaf.

My parents are still living in the house where I grew up, but much of their house has changed in the last year. Extra railings and handles have been added to the stair cases. Door ways have been widened to accommodate wheel chairs. In need of an extra easy access bedroom, they converted a living room into a bed room complete with a hospital bed. They even rebuilt the front entrance of the house with a new driveway to make access in and out of the house less cumbersome for all the seniors. Not quite a complete make-over, but the house is noticeably different then when I lived there.

After dinner is over my grandparents Billy and Darrell, who still have their whits about them and are fairly high functioning, help to clean up.  Everyone else begins their bedtime routines. Becky and I start getting our two little girls down to bed. My mom and dad start getting Betty and John ready for bed. Betty can do just about all of it on her own. John on the other hand, needs help with everything, and I mean everything. Standing up. Sitting down. Wiping his nose. He’s moved throughout the house in a wheelchair. Going to the bathroom. Getting dressed. Being laid into bed… Everything. With him, my parents are hands on all the time. He can never be left alone.

Once the house is quiet and all of the seniors and kids are in bed, the “adults” pour ourselves a glass of wine and sit in the family room to wind down for the evening. We talk about how life has changed for my parents. The struggles they face and the exhaustion they feel. The balancing act of work, household chores, care-giving and still having a little bit of time for themselves. The daily questions that confront them about declining health and the recognition of certain aging signs. As we sit and talk, I am overwhelmed. Throughout the past year I have heard the stories from my parents about how their life has changed. But actually being there and seeing first hand is something else. But I’m not overwhelmed with anxiety, angst or concern. Rather, I’m overwhelmed by the Spirit of Christ that resides in their home.

My parents could be in a season of life characterized by leisure and recreation. The kids are gone. They’ve paid off their debts. They’re in good health. They have adequate resources they could be spending on themselves. But their not. Instead, in the remodeling of their home, the preparation of meals, the extra laundry, the changing of bed pans and the wiping of noses, they are denying themselves. They are making tremendous sacrifices and embracing a life of service.

That evening, after we finished our wine and said good night, I crawled into bed with the words of Jesus echoing in my head,

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23)

That’s exactly what my parents are doing. They are following Jesus. They are denying themselves in a world that constantly says, “indulge yourself.” If you ask them why they made the decision to take in all of their aging parents at the same time, they will tell you with a sense of conviction and calling, “This is what the Lord has for us in this season of life.”

All too often, with my Disney-World-Consumer shaped imagination, I’m tempted to believe that following Jesus is like an enchanted fairytale that leads to extraordinary adventure with extravagant reward right here, right now. But nowhere in the Gospel does Jesus indicate that. Rather, He says things like…

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.(Mark 8:43-45)

Not only did Jesus say it, He also modeled it. He lived it out. He accepted the ones society rejected. He took the defiled and made them clean. He invited misfits and outcasts to the head of the table. He exalted the lowly and lowered the exalted. In living this way, in becoming the servant of all, Jesus sought to give humanity and dignity to those who seemingly had none.

Whether my parents would articulate it in this way at this time, I don’t know, but they are possibly having one of the richest and most rewarding experiences of their life. Why? Because after visiting for only one weekend, I came to realize that my childhood home had become hallowed ground. The presence of Jesus fills every room in that house more fully than it ever has before. The heart beat of God reverberates through every narrow hallway. The ways of God’s Kingdom are palpable in the daily sacrifices my parents are making in order to care for and serve their parents. Every night, as the six of them sit down around the table for dinner, the presence of Jesus sits to dine with them.

And even though I am taken aback by what my parents are doing… perhaps I shouldn’t be. Perhaps this is just a natural response to someone in their situation who is whole heartedly devoted to Christ. Maybe this is just a normal outworking of the Kingdom of God in their lives. Maybe what they are experiencing is the extraordinary adventure and extravagant reward of following Jesus. Because what they are receiving in their sacrifice is more of Christ. More of his Spirit and his sufficiency in their life. And whether or not my grandparents know it, they are receiving the exact same thing. Because like the Apostle John says in the opening passage of his gospel,

The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish. (John 1:14, The Message)

When visiting my folks a few weeks back, with my own eyes, I saw the glory of Christ take on flesh and blood and move into the neighborhood. He’s taken up residence in the home of my parents.

Grace and Peace.

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20 Responses to “A Gospel Response to the Elderly”

  1. Mark Marvel

    Very well written. I can see that you were paying attention in a big way. This made your mother cry. Thanks for the perspective because in the midst of the work, it is hard to maintain clear perspective. Thanks for your words.
    Dad

    Reply
  2. brad harris

    Great writing, Bryan! And even a greater message and insight!

    I know I’m a bit off your point here, but I felt compelled to comment anyway, since this is very close to my heart.

    . I went through that time of life with aging parents. My Mom had dementia, and my Dad had emphysema, along with congestive heart failure. They lived in Asheville NC, where I grew up, and I here in Atlanta. It was hard seeing them get older and declining in health. I could only visit every two weeks, just to spend time with them, and see if there is anything I could do to make their life easier. My Dad insisted on staying in their house and taking care of my Mom. He didn’t accept any outside help. So, me and most of my siblings being out of town, that was very worrisome to us. Thankfully I had one sister that still lived in Asheville to check on them and take them to doctors appointments when needed.

    In short, this story hit very close to home for me. The sadness of seeing my parents slipping away, the worry, the responsibility. But, also knowing the days are short, I appreciated every moment I got with them. No, it wasn’t exactly “fun” going home, but knowing every time I left, could be the last time I see them, I savored our time.

    Both of my parents past away within 2 years apart. 1999 and 2001. I have no regrets. Even though it was a hard time, it was also a blessed time of life, in which I look back and see the caring and work of God during those times. Times to just be with them, times of strength when I had none left to be there. Peace, knowing that time of life, I was where I was supposed to be. Bitter sweet. I always think back to Deuteronomy 5:16 “honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”
    brad

    Reply
    • bryanmarvel

      Hey Brad- thanks for reading and contributing. After having spent the weekend w/ my folks I have a whole new perspective on the notion of caring for aging parents. It’s hard to imagine the questions, concerns, worries, etc… specifically when you are out of town.

      It’s a complex endeavor requiring lots of wisdom. The thing that really resonated w/ me after being w/ my family was the importance of giving aging parents there dignity and respect.

      I’m glad that you were able to get consistent time w/ them in the later years of their life and have no regrets. That’s important.

      Reply
  3. Lorri K. Elliott

    Bryan-

    Very well written indeed! By far my favorite post to date. You honor your parents while glorifying God. This is what it looks like to follow Jesus…my parents are serving Him in the same way. Thank you for sharing this needful reminder to all of us-if we live long enough, each of us will wear the shoes of your grandfather- may we be so blessed to have sons and daughters who truly know what it means to BE “sons and daughters” of the Servant to all. Mark (Elliott) always says that when we get to Heaven it will not be the popular theologians, the glitzy mega-pastors and the like that will be the “headliners” there, it will be these saints that surround the Throne of the Lamb that we will be standing behind as we worship our King.

    Dei gratia,
    Lorri

    Reply
  4. LuAnn

    Wow, Bryan. How hard to give it all up – our own comforts and privacy – for the safety and care even of loved ones. Thanks for sharing this.

    Reply
  5. Jane

    What an insightful (and touching) article Bryan! You are truly blessed to have parents whose faith is so clearly manifested in their daily lives. I understand the struggles since my parents live with us. One of the hardest aspects (in addition to all the care required) is continuing to maintain their sense of dignity when their minds fade. It is obvious that your parents are clearly blessed with the strength that only God can give on a daily basis. They will be in my prayers.

    Reply
    • bryanmarvel

      Hey Jane – thanks for reading and contributing. The thing that struck me the most about visiting my parents was there attempt to treat their folks w/ dignity. I saw how it can be challenging especially when dementia sets in and my grandfather now at times acts like a child. It’s was those moments in particular that I witnessed the grace of Christ working in & through my parents.

      Reply
  6. Larry Haron

    Bryan, I very much appreciate you writing this. I see this scenario almost every day and marvel (no pun intended) at the depth of character, tenacity and grace exhibited in children or spouses, even ex-spouses taking care of those who cannot do for themselves. It is humbles and challenges me. I am grateful that I can be of any encouragement to them. This truly is an arena where ‘God moves in mysterious ways’ but few see or know it until they have to face it personally because our American culture is so segmented and the elderly are shelved more than they are revered.

    But even in these tough, character building/revealing seasons, God drops surprising gifts along the way. I’ve seen them as well and am reminded He is still good and faithful in all things. Even here.

    Blessings,

    Larry Haron

    Reply
    • bryanmarvel

      Hey Larry – Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on this post. I actually had you in mind as I was thinking about writing it. I thought that if there was anyone out there who would understand the thrust and nature of this post, it would be you.

      God does give gifts to us in these difficult moments, doesn’t he. It requires that we have eyes to see them, but they are certainly there along the way.

      Reply
  7. Sarah

    Bryan, this is such a wonderful and rich post. Thank you for sharing, and thank God for your parents!

    Reply
  8. Ellie

    Bryan, I’m Jeff’s aunt, living in Central Florida, and I was glad to briefly meet you when we were there Easter weekend. My thanks to Patricia for sharing your beautiful message on FB. I’m responsible for the devotion in my Sunday School class this next Sunday, and I’m planning to read it to our class of about 60 people. Hope that’s OK with you! Thanks so much again……… Ellie

    Reply
    • bryanmarvel

      Hey Ellie – it was great to meet you to a while back. Hope that we will get to see you again. I’m glad that you were able to stumble across this post. I would be honored to have you share this w/ your Sunday School class. I hope that it will be an encouragement and a blessing to the folks in your class.

      Grace and Peace.

      Reply
  9. Judy Davis

    Bryan, thank you so much for your message I live this with my mom every day it is so hard but do it cause it is my mom and i love her. its is nice I am not the only one and encouragement helps every day love God bless judy

    Reply
    • bryanmarvel

      Hey Judy – thanks for reading and contributing to this post. It is amazing what love can compel us to do. Even though most challenging of situations are made possible through love. Specifically the love of Christ that is working in and through us.

      Reply
  10. jim and carole

    wow, thank you Bryan. What an example for us all. We love your Mom and Dad.we are commited to pray for them. In fact we wish we could go to visit and help in some other way too.

    Reply
  11. Mike Harrison

    Hi Bryan, thanks for the great tribute to your folks as you saw the Love of Jesus being played out right in front of you. I was blessed to know your folks while they were here in Colorado for Mark’s seminary studies. We had lots of talks during the time they were hearing from the Lord about their return home and taking on the added care for three more aging parents/relatives.
    In a similar vein, the Lord has been showing me this year the reality of 1 Timothy 5 where Paul talks about “widows who are really in need”, those who have no children or grand children to care for them. As I find myself caring for several of these folks as part of my ministry responsibilities at the church, I’ve come to realize the incredible responsibility AND honor that the church has to care for those who have no one else.
    May the Lord bless you in your ongoing ministry.
    Pastor Mike Harrison

    Reply
    • bryanmarvel

      Hey Mike – Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on this post. It truly is an honor to care for those in our midst who don’t have people to come along side and care for them. May the Lord bless you and strengthen you are you do the work that he has called you to do in the community of Bethany. It is certainly a privilege to do the work he has called us to do.

      Reply
  12. Denesh

    Bryan,

    Another great post by you! Loved reading it, just like the others. It really struck a chord in me due to the current season of life I’m in… It’s been really difficult to do the kind of care taking and coddling I’m responsible to do now. Respect and dignity. I really need to keep those words and their meanings in mind when I am at my mother’s side. Thanks for this perspective. So blessed to know you.

    Denesh

    Reply
  13. Margo Cuthbert

    Dear Bryan, I cried when you shared with us in your sermon about your fols. There are some older Christians living right down the road at Uni Health Center in Chamblee who would love visits from some of our members. They are unable to get out to church. We have a small team that goes there once a month for a sing a long. It is such a blessing for them We go the1st Wed. of the month. Maybe we could do something as well.

    Reply
  14. Kelly Tobin

    Beautiful, Bryan. The glory of Christ has not just moved in and taken up residence – He’s been there a looooong time.

    Reply

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