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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On the other hand, one may also decide not to engage in that mode of treatment, but simply receive medications to alleviate pain. One is still seeking medical aid, as Jewish law requires every sick Jew to do, but the intent and form of that aid is dif­ferent. When one has a terminal, incurable disease, palliative care is appropriate and sufficient to satisfy the dictates of Jew­ish law; for while Jewish law requires sick Jews to avail them­selves of medical care, it does not require that they have unrealistic hopes for cure or engage in therapies unlikely to bring cure. Similarly, we are not expected to be omniscient, knowing what cures will be developed tomorrow. When the attending physician(s) judge the illness to be incurable, medical treatment exclusively to alleviate pain is both moral and legal for obser­vant Jews to employ….

Hospice care at home, though, is not right for everyone. Some will choose to fight the noble battle against a disease diagnosed as incurable, and they have that right. Others will prefer to live in assisted living facilities or nursing homes, or their children's jobs or location may require that. But Jewish parents and their adult children should know that hospice care at home falls within the rules of Jewish medical ethics, and it has the added advantage of enabling children not to delegate their parent's care to others but rather to do it directly and personally as an act of honor and love.


In sum, the Jewish tradition has developed a number of spe­cific rules to give content to the feelings of honor and respect that we are to have for our parents. Housing elderly parents who cannot care for themselves at one's own home may no longer be possible, necessary, or desirable. That may be because both the adult and his or her spouse may work outside the home during the day and cannot afford to arrange for private care for the par­ent all day long.

Moreover, because of the increasing number of elderly people in contemporary society, long-term-care facilities have become available, and often elderly parents would prefer the company of their peers to living with people much their jun­ior, even if they happen to be members of their own family. Fur­thermore, people with professional medical and social work skills staff such facilities and provide activities suited to the in­terests of elderly people, all of which are not available at the adult child's home. Finally, some parents and children do not get along very well.

On the other hand, some families may find that many of the traditional measures of personal care have a refreshingly mod­ern ring to them, articulating modes of behavior that moderns would do well to follow. That is especially true when parents and children get along well and when grandchildren can benefit from the experience of close ties with their grandparents and of aiding in their care. Whatever the decision on the particular arrangement that a family uses to care for their elderly parents, the crucial element is one of tone, for, as we have seen, even sup­plying one's parents with a basic need like food is only an act of honor if it is done in that spirit.

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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.