Question: "Is it wrong for a Christian family to put a loved one into a nursing home?"
Answer: As life expectancy increases, more families are grappling with the issues that arise when their loved ones age. While many families may prefer to take care of their elderly relatives themselves, the care can become overwhelming and they are forced to consider other options. One option in Western culture is the nursing home. Nursing homes exist to give care to adults who are unable to care for themselves. Some people have serious concerns about whether it is right to put someone they love in a nursing home.
Nursing homes differ widely in quality, purpose, and price. We’ve all seen news reports of abuse and poor conditions in some nursing homes, and we’ve shuddered at the thought of someone we love being subjected to ill treatment. However, abusive or negligent nursing homes are the minority, and a variety of good options are available for those who need care, including resort-style retirement homes that rival upscale all-inclusives. Some church denominations have their own retirement homes for elderly ministers, missionaries, and their spouses. So the question about nursing home care must take into account the level of care needed, the wishes of the loved one, and the quality of the homes considered.
One factor that must be considered when looking at nursing homes is God’s standard for the family. First Timothy 5:8 says that “anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Our first consideration must be the adequate provision for those of our own households. Households are comprised of all human beings over which God has given us familial responsibility. Children and spouses are the first rung of that ladder. Parents are the second rung, and then extended family, such as brothers, sisters, and grandparents. Philippians 2:3 instructs us to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” To value others, we must be willing to set our own desires aside in the best interest of those God has placed in our lives.
If a family chooses to care for an ailing family member at home, rather than placing him or her in a nursing home, then they have other considerations. Self-sacrifice is required to assume the daily physical care of an incapacitated family member, and the caregiver will not be the only one sacrificing. There is a toll on other family members, too. Families vary, and some households are better equipped to handle the full-time care of a loved one than are others. The need for such care is not only due to aging but can be created through disease, brain injury, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, coma, severe autism, and many other factors. Families dealing with severely handicapped children, parents, or siblings may be unable to give adequate care, or the cost to the entire family is simply too great. When the quality of life for the whole family is becoming severely damaged due to the overwhelming task of caring for a disabled member, it may be time to prayerfully consider other options.
Of course, nursing homes, retirement villages, and in-home nursing support all cost money. Insurance and Medicare may take care of some of the expenses, but often financial considerations play a big role in the decision to find a nursing home. In Mark 7:9–13, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for using monetary gifts to God as an excuse to abandon the care of one’s parents. In this rebuke, He assumed that godly children would expect to care for their aging parents, including offering financial support when needed. We can infer from this that it is not wise to give all our resources to outside charities and then have nothing left to support those who depend on us. Sacrificial giving should always be balanced with wisdom and our responsibility for those in our care.
Another factor in deciding whether nursing home care is the right decision is the nature of the relationship with the loved one in question. A beloved grandmother who has given her best years to caring for the family may be better cared for in a relative’s home than would a sour, abusive father whose bitterness affects every home he inhabits. Our responsibility to honor father and mother remains the same, but honor can take many forms (Matthew 15:4). Ideally, adult family members gladly assume the role of caregiver when a relative is unable to care for him- or herself. However, that may not always be possible or even wise. Even though it may not be the family’s first choice, a nursing home can still be a way to honor an incapacitated loved one when giving adequate care at home becomes impossible.