Our own behavior with our parents becomes a source of reference for our children. When my children see me shopping for or showing respect to their Bubby, they absorb that this is what one should do for one’s elderly parents, and I hope they will take care of me as well.
There are two mitzvos in the Torah for which we are rewarded with a long life. The first is that of Shiluch HaKen. The Torah commands that when one finds a mother bird sitting on her eggs, you must first send her away before you take the eggs. The second mitzvah is that of Kibud Av v’Em, honoring ones parents. The Midrash teaches that both extremes – the easiest commandment of sending away the mother bird and the most difficult commandment of respecting our parents – have the same reward, the lengthening of our days to remind us that we do not really know the value of our mitzvos.
It also shows that Chazal agree with our premise that properly respecting one’s parents is very difficult to do. It is easy for us to have empathy for the mother bird and want to spare her pain, however, taking care of our parents is the opposite extreme, it is something that does not come easily. The basis of this mitzvah is hakaras hatov, showing appreciation for all they have done for you, including bringing you into this world. People like to be independent; owing your life to two individuals puts a leash on that. Perhaps this explains why children try so hard to break away from their parents during adolescence; as they embark on a path towards independence and self-discovery, they find it difficult to take direction from and be so indebted to their parents, to whom they really owe so much.
As parents get older these dynamics continue to shift. Our egos do not want to believe that our parents can dictate our direction – even though we wouldn’t be here without them. Some parents use “Jewish guilt” to encourage us to help them, stoking the coals of rebellion and our ever-present search for independence. However, these parents may be correct in their goal of trying to get more help from their children. We can never finish paying our debt for all that they have done for us–and even more so, our debt to our Creator for all that He has done for us. This comparison explains why respecting one’s parents is on the same side of the luchos as those commandments that involve our relationship between us and Hashem.
When parents are old and infirm there are other issues that prevent us from giving them the proper attention. Our parents were guiding lights and we perceived them as being invincible; this makes it emotionally difficult to see them as needy, weak or incapacitated. When we were younger, they took care of all of our needs; with the passage of time we may need to be taking care of all of their needs.
Personally I find it emotionally challenging to be in this position. It is sometimes easier to help an elderly stranger than to help one’s elderly parent; the former does not involve the wrenching emotions of seeing one’s parents in a vulnerable state. This may be an additional explanation for why it is such a hard mitzvah, but we owe them gratitude and it is our responsibility to be there for them despite the difficulty involved.
Chazal tell us that at the time of redemption children will motivate their parents to grow spiritually closer to Hashem: “Ve’heishiv lev avos al banim v’lev banim al avosam.” In addition to taking care of their spiritual needs, children should begin by taking care of their physical and emotional needs. May we be zoche to the geulah when Hashem will heal all pains and return those who are no longer with us so that we will have another – better – chance to show our appreciation.