Women, Eldercare, and the Honor Commandment

By: Amy Ziettlow Naomi Cahn

September 8, 2014

In the Biblical story of Ruth, the burden of honoring and caring for Naomi falls to Ruth, her daughter-in-law. Naomi’s husband and sons have died, but Ruth promises, “where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your friends will be my friends and your God will be my God.”
Thousands of years later, women continue to be the primary caretakers for the elders in their family, be they mothers, father, in-laws, or stepparents. In fact, recent research shows that while men are assuming more responsibilities for child care, there remains a huge disparity in time spent in elder care.[1] In our work exploring modern expressions of the Honor Commandment – the Biblical command to honor one’s mother and father – we heard many stories of how daughters (and sons) honor their parents. 

Jackie and Heather are daughters of Robert Gutierrez, who died at age 69 from complications after elective surgery.[2] Emotionally volatile and often absent from their childhood life for months at a time, Gutierrez cycled through three marriages after the divorce from their mother. His behavior estranged his third daughter and oldest son, but Jackie and Heather were determined to honor him in his final year of life. 

Heather served as the primary caregiver and surrogate decision-maker. She drove him to medical appointments, managed his medications, and helped him with bathing and dressing. When asked about the Honor Commandment, Heather explained, 

“I’ve honored my father. I did when nobody else would. He was an ornery old man, but I respected him.” 

In contrast to Heather’s hands-on care, Jackie was more detached; not only was she more geographically and emotionally distant from her father, she also faced the demands of her full-time job and family of five. She offered support to Heather via phone calls and attended the memorial service. When asked about the Honor Commandment, Jackie explained, 

“I tried to figure my terms to carry on a relationship with him that doesn’t transgress against me and dishonor me. I do owe him something. He’s my father.” 

The Gutierrez sisters highlight how the “Honor Commandment” not only looms large as a societal construct with 79 million Baby Boomers in the United States approaching old age, but also, as was true for Ruth, has a gendered impact. Almost two-thirds of older people depend on family and friends for caregiving and most of those caregivers are women.[3] In the absence of spousal care, adult children assume the bulk of elder care,[4] and daughters are twice as likely as sons to care for an elder, including in-laws.[5] Women who exit the labor force to provide care not only lose income, but also lose opportunities to save for their own retirement.[6] As these caregiving women age, they will come to dominate the numbers of those receiving care. Women constitute a majority of the aging population.[7] 

Overall, our research shows that the Honor Commandment not only continues to motivate the providing of elder care, but also reflects the full complexity of practical, emotional, and spiritual care of the family. Indeed, the eldercare dilemmas associated with the Honor Commandment are similarly powerful in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and especially Confucianism.[8] Asian societies, particularly Japan and China, are world leaders in confronting the dilemmas of aging societies and in encouraging the efforts of individuals and families to honor their elders even as the duties of elder care grow increasingly onerous.[9] 

As a society, we may be better off if a sense of honor is the motivation for care of our elders, rather than coercive or regulatory measures. The Honor Commandment and its analogues in other religions and cultures provide a moral framework and path forward that respects both individual wishes and family integrity. But the path of honor can become a “daughter track,”[10] where responsibility for caregiving falls disproportionately on women. Providing more adequate support for caregiving would have a particularly significant effect for women, ensuring their ability to provide care while also making available the fullness of their services as equally respected worker-citizens. Strengthening our secular laws to help support caregiving can profoundly affect how people live the Honor Commandment, improving the lives of those who receive and give family care—especially women like Heather and Jackie. 

* This piece presents themes reported fully in “The Honor Commandment: Law, Religion, and the Challenge of Elder Care,” slated for publication in the Journal of Law and Religion 30:2 (June 2015). A symposium issue of the Journal of Law and Religion, co-edited by Amy Ziettlow and Naomi Cahn and to be published in 2016, will also feature a slate of international, interdisciplinary, and interfaith scholars addressing the world-wide impact of the Honor Commandment.

[1] See Frederick Kunkle, “Daughters Provide Twice as Much Care to Aging Parentst than Sons Do,” Washington Post, August 19, 2014; Michael D. Lemonick, “Women Give Way More Care to Aging Parents than Men,” Time.com, August 22, 2014
[2] All names have been changed to protect the identity of respondents.
[3] Ann Bookman & Delia Kimbrel, Families and Elder Care in the Twenty-First Century, 21 FUTURE CHILD. 117, 124 (2011)Who are the Caregivers?, FAM. CAREGIVER ALLIANCE, (last visited Mar. 3, 2014). The Prophet Mohammed listed one’s mother as the first person to whom one should be good. Roaa M. Al-Heeti, Note, Why Nursing Homes Will Not Work: Caring for the Needs of the Aging Muslim American Population, 15 ELDER L. J. 205, 209 (2007).
[4] Jennifer Haupt, Elder Care: The Next Frontier in Family Benefits, 28 PENS. WORLD 10 (1992).
[5] Emily Abel, Adult Daughters and Care for the Elderly, in THE OTHER WITHIN US: FEMINIST EXPLORATIONS OF WOMEN AND AGING 135 (Marilyn Pearsall ed., 1997); Ellen Ernst Kosseck & Beverly J. DeMarr, Assessing Employees’ Emerging Elder Care Needs and Reactions to Dependent Care Benefits, 22 PUB. PERSONNEL MGMT. 617, 619 (1993); Peggie R. Smith, Elder Care, Gender, and Work: The Work-Family Issue of the 21st Century, 25 BERKELEY J. EMP. & LAB. L. 351 (2004).
[6] Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, Jessica C. Smith, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012 16 fig. 6 (2013).
[7] See 65+ in the United States:2010, United States Census Bureau.
[8] See, e.g., Daniel Qin, Confucian Filial Piety and the Fifth Commandment: A Fulfillment Approach, 16 ASIAN J. PENTECOSTAL STUD. 139 (2013) Adult Children Ignoring Confucius Risk Lawsuits in China, Mar. 17, 2013.
[9] See Amy Ziettlow and Naomi Cahn, “The Silver Tsunami Meets the Honor Commandment,” Family Studies (blog) (Charlottesville, VA: Institute for Family Studies, May 13, 2014).
[10] See Jane Gross, “Forget the Career, My Parents Need Me at Home,” New York Times, November 24. 2005 Gross’s article, published on Thanksgiving Day 2005, as many families in the U.S. gathered inter-generationally around their holiday tables appears to be the origin of the term “daughter track” and addressed the myriad challenges of daughters who give up careers to pursue this path of caregiving. 

This posting is part of a collection addressing the nexus of women, religion, and the family. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Berkley Center or WFDD. The goal of the entire collection is to generate discussion around these important topics.
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