“Honor your father and mother that your days may be long…”
Does this commandment apply to your family?

As 76 million Baby Boomers approach old age, the coming “Silver Tsunami” will change how we think about the elderly, illness, and the end of life. The Baby Boomers’ high rates of divorce, remarriage, and single parenthood, their decreased birthrate, and their geographic mobility signal profound changes in the traditional elder care script. What role will the Honor Commandment play in this care?

Elizabeth Marquardt and I (now joined by Naomi Cahn) have engaged in a three-year project, funded by the Lilly Endowment and based at the Institute for American Values, to study how the grown children of Baby Boomers have transitioned into the role of family caregiver for aging and dying parents, stepparents, or ex-stepparents. We interviewed respondents aged 28 to 49 years old who had played an integral role in caring for their now deceased parent or stepparent. Our sample reflected current Baby Boomer family demographics: one-third of the parents were still married to their first spouse at the time of their death, one-third were single parents (many as a result of divorce), and one-third had separated from their first spouse or partner and remarried since having kids. Towards the end of our two-hour, qualitative interviews, we asked the Honor Commandment question that opened this article.

What did we learn? First, we were surprised to learn that all grown children feel that the commandment still applies to them, although its expression was tempered by the quality or length of their relationship with the parent or stepparent. Second, respondents interpreted broadly the means and methods for living both the spirit and the letter of the precept. Interpretations ranged in intensity, from day-to-day care or constant presence at a hospital bedside, to financial contributions that may or may not be connected to hands-on care, to more distant expressions, such as phone calls or attendance at a memorial service.

The grown children of Baby Boomers feel that the Honor Commandment still applies to them.

The family of Robert Gutierrez,* a Baby Boomer father who died at age 69 from complications after elective surgery, serves as a good example. According to the daughters we interviewed, Gutierrez had not been a model parent. They described him as emotionally volatile and often absent from their childhood life for months at a time, cycling through three marriages after the divorce from their mother. Two of his daughters, Jackie and Heather, struggled to determine how best to honor him when he needed their support in the final years of his life.

Heather served as the primary caregiver and surrogate decision-maker. She explained their caregiving arrangement: “He lived in a little RV out the back door. I would always go and take care of him, clean his trailer. We’d cook and bring him food. I’d wash his clothes, you know, I took care of him.”

She drove him to medical appointments and eventually arranged for home health services to manage his medications and help him with bathing and dressing. Then, he heard about a new surgery that could help calm tremors in his hands stemming from nerve damage. Despite her vocal opposition to this elective surgery, Heather honored his wishes. On the day of his death, Heather found herself alone at his bedside:

I stayed there for a few minutes with him. Then I was asked to leave so that they could prepare him. They asked me where I wanted him, and I told them he was going to be cremated. Then I walked out, stood in the hall and cried. By myself.

When asked about how the Honor Commandment applied to her family, Heather explained,

I’ve honored my father. I did when nobody else would. He was an ornery old man. He told me twice in my life that he loved me. I’m sure he did, but he just never showed it the same way we’re accustomed to showing it, you know? He was a hard man, but I believe I honored him without a shadow of a doubt. I respected him.

In contrast to Heather, who provided daily care, Gutierrez’s oldest daughter, Jackie, was more detached. She felt pressure to play a similar caretaking role as her sister, but decided she could not do so: she lived several states away, she felt emotionally distant due to past conflicts with her father, and she faced the demands of her own job and family (a husband and four young children). She offered emotional support to Heather via phone calls and emails and attended the memorial service. She relinquished any rights to a financial inheritance as a way to honor the sacrifices made by her siblings to care for her dad and settle his estate. When asked about how the Honor Commandment applied to her family, Jackie explained,

I tried to figure my terms to carry on a relationship with him that doesn’t transgress against me and dishonor me, but at the same time maintains an appropriate relationship that you can carve out of a family that has the kind of history that we had. I do owe him something. He’s my father and, you know, biologically that’s a pretty important role and spiritually the Bible didn’t have a caveat about, ‘Well, honor your father and mother unless they were a real jerk.’

The other two siblings were not interviewed but, according to the two sisters, they too played a role in honoring their father in sickness and after his death. Their brother, Timothy, provided financial support to pay for the home health services and sitters, and their long estranged sister, Miranda, came to the funeral and stayed for several months to help settle Gutierrez’s estate.

Adults express their sense of obligation to their parents through emotional, physical, and financial support.

The Gutierrez family reflects what many respondents told us. They felt they owed something to their parent as they aged, and they expressed that sense of obligation through emotional, physical, and financial support. They did so without incentives beyond their own character and encouragement from each other. In reflecting on their experiences, Naomi Cahn and I have focused our attention on policy reforms that could support those who freely undertake the obligations of the Honor Commandment, rather than those policies that threaten to punish grown children who do not provide care and financial support (about half the states have filial responsibility laws).

Examples of possible reforms include changes to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FLMA) and associated state laws, many of which could have benefitted the adults we interviewed, including the Gutierrez family. Currently, the FMLA allows eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave from work for medical reasons related to the worker, a spouse, child, or parent.

First, a paid family and medical leave would have benefitted not only Heather, who took vacation leave from her job and worked flexible hours to accommodate her father’s sudden health emergencies and doctor’s visits, but also her siblings, who could have seriously considered taking time to assist her with the day-to-day care responsibilities if their time was compensated.

Second, we recommend expanding the definition of eligible relationships to include stepparents, ex-stepparents, and grandparents. Based on the sentiments shared in the Gutierrez family interviews, the four siblings will not provide care to several ex-stepfamily members unless they can do so without taking a major financial hit. In addition to expanding the list of kin, those eligible for FMLA-protected leave might even be expanded to include anyone legally serving as medical power of attorney for an individual who is incapacitated. This expansion could help protect other parents like Mr. Gutierrez whose estranged family members could leave a caregiving vacuum. Concerned friends or church members might be willing to step into a caregiving role if their jobs were protected.

Reforming the Family and Medical Leave Act is just one potential way to encourage individuals to live the Honor Commandment by caring not only for their mothers and fathers but also for the expanded number of kin within families, neighborhoods, friendships, and faith communities. The good news is that the Honor Commandment is still respected, but much work needs to be done to make living it out more feasible for more families.

*All names have been changed to protect the identity of respondents. This piece presents themes reported fully in “Honor Your Father, Mother, Stepmother, Stepfather, Mother’s Partner…Reciprocity and Gender in 21st Century Elder Care and Law,” by Amy Ziettlow and Naomi Cahn, presented at the Religion, Feminism, and Law conference held March 20-21, 2014, at St. Thomas University.

Amy Ziettlow is an affiliate scholar with the Institute for American Values, where she currently leads a Lilly Endowed study of Gen X caregiving and grieving titled, Homeward Bound: Aging, Death, and Dying in an Era of High Family Fragmentation. She is ordained in the mainline Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and most recently served as COO of The Hospice of Baton Rouge. Naomi Cahn is a law professor at George Washington University and a member of the Homeward Bound project.