Aklak shivered, fighting back tears as he hugged little Kaya for the last time. He would never again gaze into the pudgy round face of his great-grandson. Aklak’s gnarled limbs and weak heart confined him to the corner of the crowded igloo. He could no longer hunt or fish in the desolate wasteland of snow and ice. He was dead weight in a family fighting to survive. Mamook, his son, knew what must be done. He placed his feeble father on a snowy ice floe and pushed him out to sea to die alone. Such was the custom of the Inuit tribe in northern Alaska.
Author and researcher Tim Harford of BBC News records his findings in his article What Happens When We’re Too Old to Be Useful?
“I customarily killed old women. They all died, there by the big river. I didn’t used to wait until they were completely dead to bury them. The women were afraid of me.” No wonder. That’s the account of a man from the Aché, an indigenous tribe in eastern Paraguay, as told to anthropologists Kim Hill and Magdalena Hurtado.
He explained grandmothers helped with chores and babysitting but when they got too old to be useful, you couldn’t be sentimental.
As another anthropologist, Jared Diamond, points out, the Aché are hardly outliers. Among the Kualong, in Papua New Guinea, when a woman’s husband died, it was her son’s solemn duty to strangle her.
In the Arctic, the Chukchi encouraged old people to kill themselves with the promise of rewards in the afterlife.
Getting old is hell. Paul taught that as the outer body wastes away, the inner spirit is renewed day by day. (2 Corinthians 5:1-2) NIV However the “wasting away” part is inevitable. Watching your loved ones systematically lose their strength, hearing, sight and mental acuity is heart-breaking for you and gut-wrenching for them.
Not all cultures abandon their elders.
God declared the importance of honoring the elderly in Exodus 20:12:
“Honor your father and mother, that you may have a long, good life in the land the Lord your God will give you.”
Old Testament patriarchs like Jacob were revered in their later years. His offspring helped their father make the arduous journey to see Joseph and his sons in Egypt. It was customary for the patriarch to bless and prophesy over his offspring before he died. After Father Jacob’s passing, we read these words in Genesis 50:1-6:
“Joseph threw himself upon his father’s body and wept over him and kissed him. 2 Afterwards he commanded his morticians to embalm the body. 3 The embalming process required forty days, with a period of national mourning of seventy days. 4 Then, when at last the mourning was over, Joseph approached Pharaoh’s staff and requested them to speak to Pharaoh on his behalf.
5 “Tell His Majesty,” he requested them, “that Joseph’s father made Joseph swear to take his body back to the land of Canaan, to bury him there. Ask His Majesty to permit me to go and bury my father; assure him that I will return promptly.”
Hispanic matriarchs rule the roost of bustling households filled with cousins, sisters, brothers and babies. Tucson, where we served as pastors, is situated one hundred miles north of the Mexican border. Abuelitas and Tios come to Tucson hospitals for cancer treatments and bypass surgeries. I loved to see the surgery waiting rooms filled with hoards of friends and family members. Toda la familia (everyone in the family) watched, waited and prayed.
How do most Americans treat the aged? Too often they look away. I’ve visited a plethora of nursing homes. Many reek with the stench of unwashed bodies, dirty floors and rotting feces. Even the most exclusive facilities still underpay and under-appreciate their employees. Always, always I hear the voice of a demented mother incessantly calling for her son or daughter. It breaks my heart.
One of my dearest friends was the victim of elder abuse. We didn’t discover the hateful mistreatment for five years. Mary was a retired pediatrician who married a multi-millionaire. She gave millions to hospitals, universities and to our church. As Mary’s health began to decline, she wanted to remain in her home and employ a live-in caregiver. Sue was a slick con artist who ingratiated herself by “taking care” of our aging friend. In three years, she siphoned off hundreds of thousands of dollars to bank roll her daughters’ Ivy League educations and lavish lifestyles. Only after a fierce legal battle was Mary freed from her “captor’s” secret threats and emotional abuse.
People are living longer. But are they living better? How can you and I love the elderly in our midst?
- Honor them. God obviously deemed it important or He wouldn’t have proclaimed it the Fifth Commandment. (Exodus 20:12) Webster defines “honoring” as showing great respect, admiration and recognition.
- Listen to them. “Gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained in the way of righteousness.”(Proverbs 16:31) NIV. Younger adults often consider the words of the aged to be irrelevant and unimportant.
- Meet their emotional needs. Too often we assume that if our loved ones have their physical needs met, we have done our part. They need our devotion, appreciation, affirmation and time more than ever.
- Help them grieve their losses and give them comfort. Their friends have either passed away or are homebound. Most elderly women outlive their husbands. Every time an older person faces an irreversible health issue, they need comfort. Men grieve the loss of independence and earning power.
- Include them. Be sure to celebrate with them! Birthdays, holidays, reunions are wonderful opportunities to cheer your elder family members.
- Give them permission to talk about death and heaven. Family members shy away from talking about death, but it is never far from the older person’s thoughts. Sing to them, read to them and pray for them. Paul was unafraid to talk about his death. Here’s what he wrote to Timothy, his son in the faith:
“ For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge shall give me at that day; and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing.” 2 Timothy 4:6-8 KJV
Older family members loved you and carefully cared for your needs. Now it’s your turn.