HomeMay 2013Complicated Issue

Complicated Issue

“Nu, what are we going to do with your mother?’  It’s a difficult question.  Your parents are getting older, and it’s tough for them to live on their own.  You are worried that they might fall and injure themselves.  Do we move them into a facility or not?  What does Jewish tradition have to say about this serious question that many of us confront?
Honoring your mother and father is a foundation of Jewish belief; it’s enshrined in the Ten Commandments.  The Sefer Hachinuch, a medieval rabbinic text on the Mitzvahs, tells us that our parents are “ the cause  of our existence,” and it’s proper to “accord them all honors.”  The Talmud states that the definition of honor is “the child must feed, give drink, clothe and cover, lead in and take out his or her parents.”
Still, the question is what we do.  It’s not always easy to take care of elderly parents; they may need 24-hour care.  The best option, writes Maimonides in the Code of Jewish Law, is that “ideally, we should take care of our parents ourselves.”  As a modern day authority, Rabbi Yitchak Yosef writes “preferably a child should not consign elderly parents to an old-age home; instead, they should be invited to live in the child’s home where they will be cared for by the child and his or her household.”
My son-in-law has an elderly grandmother in her nineties living in Brooklyn.  She lives independently at home.  Daily, her two sons visit; every night one of the over one hundred grandchildren or great-grandchildren sleep over in her home to insure her safety.
We live in a time when this level of personal care may not be feasible.  Families are smaller and do not live in the same neighborhoods.  The bonds between the generations are not as strong.  At times we have a child with noble intentions who tells the parents, “Come move near me.  There is a wonderful nursing home in my area.”  The parents leave behind friends of decades and a familiar community.  They come to California, to be, as they put it, “close to the kids.”  The children have busy lives, dropping by the nursing home for a short visit once a week if that.  The parents end up in their sunset years fading away in a very lonely and at times depressing environment.
What if we really are unable to provide the proper care?  The parents may have serious medical complications.  Here again Maimonides offers us direction in the Code of Jewish Law, writing about a case of dementia.  “If their condition deteriorates to the point that it is impossible to bear, the child may leave them in the care of others with appropriate care.”
What emerges is a clear consensus in Jewish law: the first and best option is to take care of your parents yourself.  If it’s impossible, you can arrange for others to provide for them what Maimonides calls “appropriate care,” which means we need to insure the best for them.
California Family Code requires that a child “support a parent in need, so they will not be a burden on the state.”  There is almost no enforcement of this statute.  In Judaism we are not trying to protect society; it’s a responsibility that every child has for his parents.  They ushered us into this world, and we must protect them and care for them when they are weak and vulnerable as a recognition of the kindness they bestowed on us.
Note: This is a complicated and nuanced issue.  This article just touches the surface. To explore it more, e-mail Rabbi Eliezrie at the address below.

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