The Four Loves
The silver threads glint more prominently amongst the gold now. The lines on her cheeks and across her forehead are deeper. Her steps are slower. She bends over her work, meticulous in her feathering of flower petals on the page. She’s taken up painting, and I love watching this passion of my mama’s unfold.
Our relationship has made many changes through the years, as it should, but this latest is the hardest, and the easiest.
C.S. Lewis wrote of these differences in our love for one another in his book, The Four Loves. He wasn’t the originator of these concepts, but he explained them so our modern ears can comprehend them.
- Affection – often used for love amongst family members. Storge in Greek. You share something similar, whether blood lines, interests, or vocation.
- Romantic Love – or Eros in Greek. There is physical attraction, a magnetic pull towards each other. It’s the fluttery, fireworks kind of feeling of being “in love”.
- Friendship – Phileo love. You have a deep connection emotionally. It is the love believed to last the longest and be the hardest to let go if it ends.
- Unconditional love – divine love, or agape. Love that looks beyond circumstances and sacrificially gives of itself to another. This is the love of the elderly husband visiting his wife daily, though she has dementia and doesn’t know who he is.
In healthy parenthood our love looks like agape for most of life. We start off sacrificially giving of our time, our resources, and our energy for our kids. We may eventually develop phileo with them, once they are grown, but there isn’t a guarantee of this.
Children, on the other hand, can go through all the phases of love towards their parents. Not to sound too Freudian, but even eros. Recall the three-year-old girl who says she is going to marry her daddy and is jealous of his attention to her mom. (This is a natural phase and goes away fairly quickly, or there are deeper issues!) After all, our parents are our first guinea pigs, if you will, of learning to interact with others.
In my own relationship with my parents, I have certainly experienced my share of obligatory Storge, well-balanced Phileo, and now we are deep in Agape. They no longer share financial or physical resources with me. They help where they can, but their age prohibits the same kind of help they could give me when they were younger.
As I said in the beginning, this love is both the most difficult and most simple of loves to give. It is easiest because it is necessary and right. I have grown in myself enough to accept that the relationship will not be give and take for much longer. And that’s okay – it is the natural order of things.
It’s the hardest because it does require a lot. Our lives are busy. It is difficult to stop what you are doing to explain how to set up the Alexa or to interrupt your own family’s life to care for a parent who just had surgery. That’s why midlife is called the “sandwich generation” – we are caught between caring for own family and caring for our parents.
That’s also why agape is considered divine love. God has sacrificed for us in many ways – his mercy over and over when we ignore Him, His patience when we are slow to get the concepts He is teaching us, His sacrifice of His own Son for us, “while we were still sinners.” (Romans 5:8)
Besides the Lord, I’ve had some amazing examples of agape caregivers in my life – my own parents, my sister-in-law towards her mother with Alzheimers, friends giving of their time to friends who are ill, and other family members sharing what they can with those who can’t return anything. I’ve learned from them and drawn on my own ideas to show this love to my parents.
Ways we can Show Agape Love to our Aging Parents
- Keep the lines of communication open, even when it is difficult. Have a weekly (or semi-weekly) time set aside when you can call and catch up.
- Just like you keep family time in your own home a priority, keep it a priority with your parents. It may look different – holidays may happen the weekend before or it may be seasonal birthday celebrations (“We are celebrating fall birthdays this month, Mom!”). Keep your promises to your parents.
- Use quick ways to communicate during the week – technology is difficult for the elderly to learn, but they can learn it. Then watch out! You may have hourly texts or frequent Alexa “drop-ins.”
- Everyone loves snail mail. I don’t care who you are – we all love seeing our name on an envelope. One of my mom’s love languages is cards – my boys received them all through their childhood. It takes two extra minutes at the grocery store and doesn’t require a lot of effort.
- Take interest in their interests, even if you have no interest. Get that? They are proud of their quilts, paintings, scarfs, and woodwork. Gush a bit. It means a lot.
- Encourage them to continue to develop friendships. With decreasing independence, old age is a lonely time. Make sure they take advantage of the opportunities they have – at church, at the senior center, in their neighborhood. If your mom is a great baker, tell her to take the neighbors some brownies. Neighborhood friendship is a lost art, but they can set the trend.
- Get to know their doctors. Set up a medical power of attorney before the chance has passed. Learn their end-of-life wishes. If you think they won’t want to talk about it, you are wrong. It is on their mind, at least sometimes, trust me!
- Love your siblings, even if they make you crazy. Isn’t that what we want for our kids – a knowledge that they love each other? Put aside childhood and young adulthood differences and accept that we are all crazy, in our own way.
If you have any other ideas, let all of us know in the comments. Agape doesn’t come without sacrifice of time, energy, creativity, or resources – but it is worth it, at the end of your time together.