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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"How is it possible that a man might put his father to work in a mill and inherit Paradise? It once happened that a man was work­ing in a mill. The king decreed that his aged father should be brought to work for him. The son said to his father: 'Father, go and work in the mill in place of me [and I will go to work for the king]. For it may be [that the workers for the king will be] ill-treated, in which case let me be ill-treated instead of you. And it may be [that the workers for the king will be] beaten, in which case let me be beaten instead of you.' In such an instance, he puts his father to work in a mill, but he inherits Paradise.'

If attitudinal factors are crucial in regard to physical care, how much more are they relevant to fulfilling the tradition's demands that one satisfy one's parents' psychological needs for proximity and interaction. Thus if children cannot realistically care for their parents themselves, or if the parents would be better off and happier living in their own home or in a facility for the eld­erly, then placing them in such a facility is not only permissible but possibly the most desirable option, provided that the tone with which this arrangement is made and carried out is one of honor, respect, and ideally even love. Such an attitude must be expressed in concrete actions by making sure that the living arrangements for one's parents meet their physical and psycho logical needs as much as possible and, most especially, by visit­ing and/or calling them reasonably frequently.

Increasing numbers of Jews, however, are finding that as their parents become unable to care for themselves, the best option is to house them at one of their children's homes. This is especially so when the parents are mentally fine but suffer from some physical disabilities that make it hard or even impossible for them to live on their own. Under such circumstances, housing elderly parents at one of the children's homes provides an op­portunity for the grandchildren to have continuing interaction with them and possibly to help in their care. This graphically models what the Jewish norms of honor and respect are all about, an important lesson for the grandchildren to learn for the future care of the adult children.

End-of-Life Options

Even as the parents' physical condition worsens, adult chil­dren may care for them at home in a form of care called "hos­pice." When people suffer from chronic diseases like cancer, they often come to a stage when the attending physicians judge the disease to be incurable. At that point, patients have two choices. They can try "heroic" measures, such as experimental surgeries or drugs, or they can acquiesce to their impending death and seek only palliative care.

Jewish law permits both options. If someone wants to pull out all the stops, as it were, he or she may do so, even if the med­ications or procedures to be tried have a high risk of involving complications that may, in fact, hasten the onset of death. As long as the intention is not suicide but cure, subjecting oneself to the high risks of experimental therapies is permissible.

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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.