Andrew Walker on the Pandemic Demands We Honor the Aged

Andrew T. Walker is associate professor of Christian ethics and apologetics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.


Among the tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic is the devastating toll on the elderly, particularly those in nursing homes. Often relegated to the shadows, story after story unveils the unique vulnerability of nursing home populations. The Associated Press reports that aside from thousands of elderly Americans dying directly due to COVID-19, more have died and will continue dying indirectly due to overworked caretakers and their lack of resources. Such a crisis calls for reflection on our obligations to our elderly family members. They are not burdens to be saddled with but persons whose dignity can be recognized as we reimagine what it means to be vulnerable and dependent.

Most of us probably recount visiting a nursing home to see a family member or friend or singing Christmas carols for the residents. The kindness felt gets marred by the visceral feeling of misery, loneliness, and detachment evident on many faces. Nursing homes do their best to offer care with dignity, but only so much care and attention is available given the limits of staff and resources. I leave nursing homes forlorn, wondering whether there’s another way to care for our elders.

As David Brooks wrote in a must-read feature essay in The Atlantic, the nuclear family experiment so common today runs counter to the historical norm and impedes intergenerational connection. Before America’s material boom enabled two parents and their children to live by themselves, households commonly offered residence to a broader kin network. Aged parents expected care from their adult children. The circle of life completes as children enter the world cared for by parents, and parents leave this world cared for by their children. But now, old age has become a stage of life we can put out of sight until time forces its effects on us personally.

Brooks’s essay argues how the hyper-efficiency of American living arrangements, coupled with medical technology, made it possible to care for elderly family members outside of their children’s homes. While long-term care facilities do serve in instances where complexity of care exceeds the ability of untrained family members, Christians should challenge the tendency of the elderly to reside in nursing homes rather than in our own homes. The inherent dignity of all people means recognizing human dignity at every stage of life, from natural life to natural death. This ethic stands in line with Scripture, which tells us that “You shall stand before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear God: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:32, ESV). Scripture calls for children to honor their parents at all stages, not just as adolescents.

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Source: Christianity Today