Caring for Elderly Parents

Though not a new problem, Jewish law did not explicitly address the factors that make today's options for parental care more complicated than ever.

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The question of how to care for one's elderly parents is not a new one; Jewish sources mandate that children tend personally for their parents' physical and psychological needs. Maimonides adds one caveat referred to in the article below: Those who are extremely disturbed by their parents' dementia may arrange to have someone else care for their parent. The following article applies Jewish law to the complicated situation of today. Reprinted with permission from Love Your Neighbor And Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics (The Jewish Publication Society).

In modern times, of course, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to live near one's parents. The mobility of contemporary society has meant that children often live and work far away from par­ents. This may be regrettable, but it is a real phenomenon that traditional sources do not contemplate. Moreover, facilities for caring for the elderly that were not available in the past are in­creasingly being created today, as the population of the United States, and indeed of the Western world, ages.

 

Objecting to Maimonides' permission for a child who cannot bear to be with a demented parent to leave his or her care to oth­ers, Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posquieres asked: "Whom can he command to take care of him"? That is, who would under­take to perform that which a person's own child refuses to do?

Hiring Helpers

Today we have clear answers to that question in the form of people hired to help in various ways at home or in assisted living facilities or in nursing homes. In part, this is a function of the demise of the extended family, but it is also a result of the large increases in longevity and the numbers of elderly in our society.

The question, then, is whether the use of such facilities con­stitutes a violation of the traditional demand that care of one's parents must be personal. It seems to me that it depends largely on the intent of all concerned. In one of the most sensitive comm­ents that the Talmud makes about the commandment to honor parents, the Rabbis point out that even the demands for physical care must be carried out with a proper attitude:

"A man may feed his father on fattened chickens and inherit Hell [as his reward], and another may put his father to work in a mill and inherit Paradise.

"How is it possible that a man might feed his father fattened chickens and inherit Hell? It once happened that a man used to feed his father fattened chickens. Once his father said to him: 'My son, where did you get these?' He answered: 'Old man, old man, eat and be silent, just as dogs eat and are silent.' In such an instance, he feeds his father fattened chickens, but he inherits Hell.

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Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is Rector and Sol and Anne Dorff Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University in California.