Hope Hidden in Caring for Aging Parents: An Interview with Cynthia Ruchti

Cynthia Ruchti is well-known and loved for her stories about hope. I asked her to share extensively concerning the topic "Caring for Aging Parents," an important issue for so many today
in the "sandwich generation"—between caring for children or grandchildren, and caring for aging parents. Caregivers definitely need HOPE! 

Don't miss the note a random BOOK GIVEAWAY at the end of this post!

1. Cynthia, when did you first start thinking about the topic of aging parents?

I think almost everyone would answer this as I will: "Not soon enough." Many of us don’t think about planning for retirement until we notice that first gray hair, or until friends around us are talking about retirement. Other financial priorities seem to rise above saving for retirement—like groceries, mortgage, car insurance, new shoes for the kids. 

But many times, there’s a deeper emotional reason for our postponing topics related to aging parents. It’s uncomfortable to consider what aging will do to our parents, and to us. The pain of sending our kids off to college is tempered by the new adventures that await them. Retirement brings a way of life that requires adjustments, but also offers new freedoms and choices. But the season of caring for aging parents can only end in one way—with a final goodbye. 

Even when both adult children and aging parents are confident that heaven awaits, losing a parent is one of the deepest of losses. It’s in our nature to postpone thinking about that season as long as possible.

I started thinking about aging parents the day my father died of a sudden heart attack at 64, which I then considered too young and now consider WAY too young. I will never know what my father would have been like in his 70s or 80s. He was such a learned man, with an unshakable faith in God. I miss him every day. 

My introduction to the concept of aging parents was the harsh truth that I would not have my father present in my life when he (and I) aged. Those thoughts ramped up when my mother’s health—almost simultaneously—began to deteriorate. We journeyed together through seventeen years of various intensities of caregiving.

2. Does the Bible have anything to say about caregiving?

I’ve long been confident that there is no subject we will face that God doesn’t address directly or indirectly in the Bible. It shouldn’t have surprised me that the Lord had so much to say on this topic. Some of the references were pointed—Honor your father and mother”—with no endpoint or disclaimers to that directive. The New Testament speaks against those who failed to care for the elderly within their own family. 

But others didn’t appear related until I stared at them for a while, like a puzzle that only comes to light after you’ve looked beyond the obvious. 
  • If God is slow to anger, for instance, shouldn’t that be a model for our caregiving? 
  • If we’re taught to treat each other with respect, why would that not apply to caregiving for aging parents? 
  • If the fruit of the Spirit (as expressed in Galatians 5:22) lists evidence that shows up relationally—patience, goodness, faithfulness, kindness—we don’t have to wonder about the attitude we’re to have in caring for our parents as they age.

3. How can we care for aging parents when there are still demands on our time at home?

The wise caregiver knows it is for a season. That season may be weeks, months, or years. But it is temporary. 

What may need to take a backseat for a while in order to care well for our parents in their time of need? The answer may be obvious—a hobby or an “extra” volunteer responsibility. Or it may be less obvious and more sacrificial.

The only way I know to walk that line—balancing personal health, family health, work needs, and caregiving—is to stay attuned to the whispers of the Only Wise God. If we try to manipulate our schedule to do it all, or use human intuition alone to decide whose needs come first right now, we are prone to failure and frustration. If, however, we invite God to speak to us, show us, make it clear how we can best glorify Him and follow His leading at any given moment, we will find ourselves surprised and blessed by the ways He works it out.

4. In the midst of caring for aging parents’ physical needs, there are also emotional, mental and social needs. How can an adult child access what is the most urgent need at any given time? Does a caregiver have to “be all” in a parent’s life?

Having our relationship with Jesus in good repair energizes us for the hard things. Letting our relationship with Him take a backseat drains every part of us. Not sleeping well, not eating right, not breathing fresh air exhausts us. Caregivers can’t afford to be drained spiritually, mentally, emotionally, or physically.
A caregiver is constantly doing triage. 
Who’s “bleeding out” at the moment—my aging parent or my teenage son? An emergency surgery may take precedence over a momentary meltdown…or the meltdown may require us to shelve our pride and take help wherever we can find it. 

Your husband/sibling/child doesn’t do well with emergencies? He or she may have to today. And isn’t that how we grew in our abilities to cope? We dove in and did what we could?

When pride is shelved, we’re free to admit to ourselves and to others that we are not our parents’ or our children's’ or even our spouse’s be-all and end-all. Only One can adequately fill that role. 

Our parents may prefer us to tuck them in at night, for instance. But they may discover by necessity that having a granddaughter tuck them in, or even a trusted church friend, can offer a tender moment they would have missed if they had their way, or if we assumed we were the only option.

5. How does a caregiver maintain her own sanity and well-being in the midst of caring? What spiritual truths or scriptures can help?

God has a special warehouse of supplies for caregivers. He allows caregivers access to a secret stash that others don’t need or might not appreciate as much. Uncommon fortitude. Heavy-duty versions of patience. 

In the book As My Parents Age, one of the reflections (pp. 80-81) looks at the principles in 1
Corinthians 13 as it applies the concept of godly love to godly caregiving. 

That section reminds us what pure-hearted caregiving looks like:

Love for my aging parent is patient.
Love for my aging parent is kind.
Love for my aging parents isn’t jealous. It doesn’t resent the attention the parent requires.
Love for my aging parent doesn’t brag. It isn’t condescending.
Love for my aging parent isn’t arrogant.
Caregiving love isn’t rude. It doesn’t seek its own advantage.
Love for my aging parents isn’t irritable. It doesn’t keep a record of complaints. Clean slate every morning.

When we look at that list, we can feel even more inadequate. But it’s important to note that His kind of love is what God promises to supply to those who ask Him for access to His storehouses. It’s much the same as the list of fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22. It isn’t human-manufactured artificial love, joy, peace, patience…. It’s a harvest that comes from our allowing the Holy Spirit to work through us.

That counsel might seem like it ignored the question about sanity and well-being. But instead it speaks directly to those needs. We can only do so much. God has no such limits.

6. Sometimes caregiving is just plain difficult and a caregiver feels like exploding—in tears or laughter. Is there any wrong way to be a caregiver? And how does a caregiver deal with feelings of guilt?

It could be argued that the only WRONG ways of caregiving are unlovingly, uncaringly, selfishly, or resentfully. Those attitudes are hard to hide.

Guilt can cripple a caregiver. Few caregivers I’ve spoken with believe they did enough, spent enough time and energy, gave enough. Setting those feelings aside is part of good caregiving. 

If we’re caregiving as if it’s a race or competition for adequacy, as if anyone—including God—is grading us on the curve, or as if imagining that one more hour or one more hug would have changed less-than into more-than-enough, we’re missing the point. And we’re handicapping our abilities. 

Rather than focusing on the goal—loving the one in need in Jesus’ name and by His strength—we focus on our stride, our posture, how much we’re sweating. What runner can cross the finish line victoriously if consumed with their perspiration?

In addition to providing what we need to caregive well, God offers us a way to defuse guilt-bombs. Psalm 51:2—“Wash me completely clean of my guilt.”

7. What if parents live far away? How can we be caregivers then?

Long-distance caregiving brings added challenges. It’s both heartbreaking and in some ways a “guilty” relief to not be near enough to be involved in day-to-day caregiving. 

Technology can help bridge the distance. That may mean connecting with aging parents via video calls in addition to phone calls, or enlisting the aid of a private social media group to keep family members informed and updated, or connecting online with an aging parent’s neighbor or church friend. 

One universal longing in the heart of aging parents is to know they’re not forgotten, not cast aside.

8. Caregiving can cost adult children financially, but there are other kinds of sacrifices caregivers make to meet needs. Can you address some of those “costs”?

Caring for aging parents exacts a toll in energy, certainly, and time, which often translates into an agenda cost. Our agendas bow to the on-call needs of the aging parent.

Relationally, caregiving can mean some of our traditional friendship activities are put on hold during that season.

Despite the natural depletions in our physical and emotional bank accounts, wise caregivers know to keep making deposits in order to caregive for the long haul. But any sacrifice motivated by love is eventually rewarded. Our reserves are replenished by the God who says, “Well done.”

9. There eventually comes a time when we have to say goodbye to our parents. How do we do that gracefully, even victoriously? How do we deal with the grief?

Hospice workers tell us that those who have the hardest time coping with a parent’s death refused to admit it could happen. Or those who assume if they pray more diligently, investigate one more treatment, encourage better, they can prevent what is inevitable for all of us.

Three keys to navigating that inevitable goodbye with grace are:

  1. Watch for the memory-making moments, even near the end.
  2. Trust our loved one into God's hands.
  3. Allow our grief to find its unique way of expression.
Some of us need the tears—lots of them. Some need to talk it out. Some need quiet to process alone. Some write about their grief, paint their way through, stand on the edge of a lake and let their sobs ring across the water. If we try to pattern our grief on someone else’s experience, we find ourselves frustrated and mired. 

Understanding—and being prepared for—waves of grief that hit us unexpectedly and often at the oddest times will equip us to embrace the fullness of that season, its tough and tender, traumatic and hope-hemmed aspects.

10. Is there anything else you think adult children—especially Christians—need to know or remember in regard to caregiving?

Familiar Bible verses remind us to do to others as we would have them do to us (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31). When caring for my mother in her final days that stretched to years, if I wearied, that biblical principle buoyed me. If I fell into feeling sorry for myself or resenting the intrusion of caregiving on my carefully-laid plans, God reminded me that the day will likely come when my daughter or sons will be tasked with caring for me. 

How would I want to be treated? With respect. With tenderness. With kind consideration. I’d want them to listen even if I didn’t make sense and demonstrate that I wasn’t forgotten. 

As I ran errands for my mom or rubbed lotion on her feet or held her in my arms, I pictured years down the road when the one being held would be me. It softened both my voice and my touch.

What is your greatest care-taking struggle with aging parents? How has the Lord helped you in this worthy-but-difficult responsibility?

NOTE: Share your comments here 
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As My Parents Age ... a random drawing ending Nov. 8, 2017.

Cynthia Ruchti tells stories hemmed in Hope through award-winning novels, nonfiction, and devotionals, and through speaking events for women and writers. She's the author of 21 books that tackle tough topics tenderly. You can connect with Cynthia on her website or Facebook Reader Page to find out more about her current and upcoming releases.


The Tagailo Family said...

Thank you for this article. #7 hits home for us since our parents are in the Philippines. Praise God for a timely reminder.

Dawn Wilson said...

Oh, that must be so hard. I live on the other side of the country from my mom, and I'm so glad my sister is there to care for her.

deloresliesner said...

Beautiful. I was surprised to experience some of this beauty when caring for my mother, because she was also my abuser.

The two most vital aspects for me were to remember that the journey was about Jesus, not about me or even Mom, and to have a team of loyal prayer partners to support, guide, pray and listen. It paid off as Mom and others came to know the Lord through the 7 year journey.

Thanks for sharing your story Cynthia. I'm also working on sharing mine for those who have had a darker journey, though all of your points are valid for all of us.

Dawn Wilson said...

Oh Delores. That would be especially difficult. But how wonderful the Lord gave you special grace to offer your mom the loving care you did not receive yourself. Thank you for sharing this additional insight. - Dawn

Cynthia Ruchti said...

Praying for all these who have commented...and all those they represent.