Do Your Children a Favor — Be a Burden on Them

They may very well get to thank you some day — at the Pearly Gates.

Albert Anker, “Die Andacht des Grossvaters,” 1893
Albert Anker, “Die Andacht des Grossvaters,” 1893 (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

It’s almost cliché. Those of the “Greatest Generation” absolutely, positively do not want to be a “burden” on their children. This generation of people who gave so much for so many couldn’t (and can’t) imagine putting their children in a position of having to sacrifice for them. On the surface, this would seem like yet another selfless action on their part. But is it?

Could pride also be a factor here? It can be embarrassing to have to have your kids take very personal care of you. I get it. And don’t get me wrong: There is certainly a selfless quality associated with going out of one’s way to not put one’s children out. However, I propose that this seemingly thoughtful mindset has had some very dire, unintended consequences — both on those who espouse it along with the next several generations to follow. We all need opportunities to love and to grow — to stretch ourselves — and those are being taken away systematically. Our society suffers because of this.

God gave us the Ten Commandments to guide us in right living. And the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and mother,” is the last of the “Do” Commandments (as opposed to the 6 “Don’ts” that follow).

With the First, God wants us to freely choose him as No. 1 in our lives. The Second focuses on him wanting us to recognize the sacredness of his name, so as to realize how blessed we are to be made in his image and likeness. And the Third should remind us of the beauty of his House and of his Day. While there is water all throughout the atmosphere and on this planet — everywhere we go, in fact — he wants us to know how important it is to come to the “well” — to church — for his living water he provides at Mass every week. We get regular opportunities to freely choose obedience to these first three Commandments. But once our parents get older — much older — and are in need of more and more assistance, we don’t always get the opportunity to “honor” our parents — to take direct care of them. Many parents have chosen to not allow this, because they don’t want to be a “burden.”

At one time, it was common for three (or more) generations to live under one roof. Now, the elderly often choose to have strangers take care of them in institutions. Third-party insurance and caretakers address those day-to-day needs, and multiple generations of children have now been conditioned to think “it’s probably better” to just write a check and call or stop by for a visit once a week, or once a month ... or not at all. It has become “normal” to see taking care of one’s parents as just not practical — that we’re not qualified. In the meantime, elderly parents sit in hospital-like rooms in soulless facilities growing depressed that they so seldomly see their children and grandchildren, and wonder why life turned out this way. Many ask God why he continues to let them live, because what’s the point? Many of their children wonder the same thing.

When you look at this issue from the perspective both of the elderly parent and of the not-very-involved adult child, is it any wonder that assisted suicide has become culturally acceptable? Is it any wonder that some societies are even demanding it? In China, for example, suicide is considered the “honorable” thing to do for elderly people without kids to care for them. (And, suicide is WAY up among the elderly there. It is growing in other countries, as well.) They wouldn’t want to be a “burden” on the state, would they?

Sixteen years ago, my wife asked her parents to move close to us. They said they didn’t want to be a burden to us, and even drove 600 miles just to look into my eyes when they asked me if this is what I really wanted, too. My wife wanted them to be around our children, but she wanted to care for them, too. She knew they had health problems, and we even agreed to find a house for all of us that could accommodate them, if needed. She was directly involved with their care daily. She went to hundreds of doctor’s appointments with them and fielded several hospital stays, ER visits, and we even worked through my father-in-law’s stroke. She advocated for them with Medicare and other insurance institutions — all this while homeschooling five children. It was incredibly challenging and exhausting. But, she never wavered because these were her parents. This was an honor to her (and to me).

We took care of them until they died (in 2013 and 2015, respectively) for more than 10 years. Then, just as we were settling back into a “normal” life, my wife did something very unexpected. She asked me what I would think of asking my mother about moving in with us. (She was 88 and voluntarily living on her own eight hours away, at the time.) I asked, and much to our surprise, my mother said that that might be a good idea.

However, my mother first made it clear that she didn’t want to burden to us. At this point, I was ready with my response. I said, “Mom, has it ever occurred to you that not allowing yourself to be cared for by your children is depriving us of a key opportunity to honor you and to work out our own salvation?” We gave it a test run to make sure she could endure the chaos of our household, and she agreed to move in.

We continue to face challenges daily, but it is such a joy to be able to honor my mother this way. We all benefit from her wisdom and her stories from decades ago. Our three-generation house is richly blessed by these circumstances and we’re all becoming more selfless and sacrificial as a result. (Heaven knows I needed such opportunities!)

So, when you’re considering how you might want to handle retirement, consider this. Consider the value of being a burden on your children. They may very well get to thank you some day, at the Pearly Gates.