‘Even to your old age’ (Isaiah 46:4)
Caring for older parents while serving in mission
Broaching the subject of care with parents is not easy.
There is never a right way of doing this. So many factors have to be added into the equation – geographic location, financial position, the quality of relationships with parents and siblings, are they Christians, the degree of care needed, etc.
The purpose of this article is not to repeat what can be found on existing websites./ Rather, it is to look at the unique position of mission partners in this matter, by raising awareness amongst the mission partners themselves, their sending churches, prayer partners and the mission agencies.
Mission partners, living overseas, can find facing this challenging issue even harder, due to distance and more limited contact with the family. Being unaware of their parents’ real state of health, perhaps disguised to stop them worrying, added to the unfamiliarity of care options available, can mean the subject is avoided until it becomes desperate.
As parents grow older, hard questions need to be asked and realistic solutions found. The feeling of bewilderment and helplessness on both sides, in the face of an emergency, may then be avoided. We believe that the process of addressing the issue of caring for parents could be facilitated by mission agencies and sending churches.
We know that the Bible teaches us to “Honour our parents” (Deut 5.16) and that Jesus vehemently criticised the Pharisees for circumventing their duty to their parents by misapplying the law (Luke 15.3-7). We are also aware that Jesus asks those who want to be a disciple to “hate” their parents! In other words, God first, family second (Luke 14.26).
So, in practice, how do we reconcile this apparently contradictory teaching? On the one side we could argue that when our parents need us, we should drop everything and return to look after them. On the other, if God called us to the mission field, we must stay, whatever the cost!
Obviously, it is never as black and white as has been stated.
Following a recent survey of mission partners across the world, it can be noted that the vast majority felt guilty about not being available to share in care duties for a sick or elderly parent. It would seem that for over 1/3 of these mission partners, this is an on-going feeling and 35% of respondents have been made to feel guilty by a third party. How does that affect the work and their well-being?
Being sufficiently prepared and appropriately supported goes a long way to alleviating this stress.
However, in the same survey, only 58% indicated that they had talked openly about care options with parents and/or siblings. Numbers were similar regarding Power of Attorney for finance and health. although two thirds had discussed making a will.
These are vital components of wise preparation for later years, mission partners included! Failure to do so can incur lengthy and costly legal measures and financial difficulties.
“As it was too late to apply for Power of Attorney, we decided to apply to the Courts of Protection for deputy status. The whole process took 9 months. During this time, we were not able to access the accounts of the parent in care. The total cost of the procedure was around £1800 plus an annual renewal fee of £180, without mentioning the amount of time filling in forms and submitting accounts. We also had to pay the fees for the care home £1000/week. It is definitely worth talking about getting PoA early in life!” 
When asked about the possibility of suspending or leaving the field to care for parents, more than half said that they would be prepared to do so and only 6% felt they could not. Of those prepared to leave, 71% were willing to do so for a period of more than a year.
“Very hard decision to leave ministry, but parents are important.” 
There are questions which arise: What is the impact on mission work when this happens? Is this discussed and planned for well in advance? Have mission agencies and sending churches explored the different options available? Sadly, only 40% of those surveyed had talked to their home church regarding this possibility. Why should this be?
What could the role of a mission agency and the sending church look like?
Following the results of the survey we suggest the following proactive approach.
- Encourage mission partners to think ahead and be prepared
“My parents have recently updated their will and initiated 'Power of Attorney' for each other, including my sister, brother-in-law, and myself in the case that both my parents are unable to make decisions for themselves.” 
- Keep mission partners informed of care options available and facilitate fact-finding about local charities and community resources
- If the parents are in the vicinity of the sending church, could the church members contribute in any way to the care, thus serving the mission partner and the family?
“Freedom to be "away" is largely due to the good care taken by my mum's assembly, otherwise it would be much more difficult. I think this should be an area where home churches should be encouraged as part of their service.” 
- Keep up to date with mission partners’ family needs through debriefs and correspondence
- Be aware of the financial burden incurred by visits home or longer periods of stay to help with care
- Provide counsel, care and prayer for mission partners who could be bearing a weight of guilt, either because they have left the field or because they are not home, contributing to care
“The agency that we work for have been hugely supportive throughout, and so have our prayer partners.”
- Help mission partners prepare for their absence from the field if they need to return as a caregiver
To conclude, many of us, whether at home or abroad, will one day be faced with providing care for elderly parents. The issues can be complex and create stress, perhaps upset, for all involved. Being prepared, knowing what help is available and not being afraid to ask for it, is a step in the right direction. Mission agencies and sending churches can facilitate this process by being proactive in prayer, support, and advice.
There is a leaflet available from Echoes International with many practical guidelines for setting up care for an elderly relative in the UK. An online version of the leaflet can be found at https://www.echoesinternational.org.uk/caring-for-parents-2021