The following responsa from R. Moshe Sternbuch, the author of Teshuvot V’Hanhagot and Moadim Uzmanim, was published in last week’s Yated. The responsa was transcribed by one of his primary students, R. Daniel Yaakov Travis. It focuses on the question of whether a child can place a parent in a nursing home.
Question: My father is getting older and it is impossible for him to function without constant help. We are considering a nursing home, but we feel that this is not the right thing to do. I must add that my father has the means to pay for a nursing home or home care, but he is not willing to use his money for this. Can the rov clarify the Torah position on this issue?
Thank you. A concerned son
Answer: This is a difficult question and each case must be analyzed separately, but we can give the following general guidelines.
If parents are unable to function by themselves, as long as the parent can be cared for properly, a child should try and keep his parent with him at home. It it will hurt the parent to be sent away, then, generally, the child should not do so. When the nursing home is the only choice, then payment depends on a number of factors.
Chazal speak at great lengths about the mitzvah of kibbud av v’eim. When a person gives his parents the proper respect, it is as if he honored Hashem. On the other hand, when a person does not treat his parents properly, it is as if he disgraced the Shechinah (Kiddushin 31b)
If a parent is unable to function by himself, the best solution is usually to get home care for him or to take the parent into one’s home so one can help him. When a parent is living in one’s home, there are countless opportunities each day to perform the mitzvah of kibbud av v’eim. Therefore, even if having a parent at home will cause one great inconvenience, in most cases a concerned child should try and put all considerations aside and bring the parent into his home. (If keeping the parent at home could cause friction between the husband and wife or the rest of the family, a rov should be consulted.
We know that the mitzvah of kibbud av is mishel av; it must be funded by the father. Based on this halacha, someone in Eretz Yisroel once suggested that he is not obligated to spend money to call his parents overseas, and according to the strict halacha he did not even have to purchase a stamp to send a letter. This way of thinking is completely incorrect.
Although Chazal tell us that a child does not have to pay for the mitzvos of honoring and fearing his parents, hurting one’s parents is a serious transgression. A child must spend his own money and do whatever is in his means to avoid hurting his parents. Furthermore, even though the mitzvah of kibbud av is mishel av, this only absolves the child from large expenses like feeding and clothing them, but a child must spend a small amount of money for a phone call of stamp.
The general rule is that a child may not do something that will cause his parents pain. Therefore, if he will hurt his parents by sending them in a nursing home, as long as their health does not obligate them to be out of the home, he should be careful before he send his parents there. If possible, he should find some other way to take care of his parents that will not cause them pain.
Someone once told Rav Chaim Brisker that he was exempt from visiting his parents. They lived far away, he said, and he could not afford a train ticket. Rav Chaim agreed with him, but added that although he did not have to buy a ticket, he was obligated to walk to visit them.
Footing the Bill
If the situation is such that a person’s parents must enter and old-age home – e.g., they need to be there for health reasons – who has to pay for this? Although the general principle regarding kibbud av v’eim is that the costs are mishel av, in the case of a nursing home we don’t follow this rule. Why is this case different?
Mitzvas kibbud av v’eim obligates one to take care of all of one’s parents physical needs, including food and dress. As long as one’s parents have the means, they are obligated to pay for these items. Only if one’s father and mother cannot afford this must the children pay.
If a parent is able to function by himself, the child can let him take care of his own needs and is not obligated to do them for him. However, if one’s parents are unable to function in these areas by themselves, their children are obligated to make sure that they are taken care of. Based on this, the Brisker Rov explained that since placing one’s parents in a nursing home is merely a way to fulfill the obligation to take care of one’s own responsibility to care for one’s parents’ needs, it is incumbent on the child to pay for someone to fill in for him, if he has the money to pay for it.
If neither the father nor the son has sufficient funds to pay for home care or a nursing home, the child should use his maaser money for this. However, the Rama warns that if the son has the moeny to pay for this expense and still uses tzedakah money, he will receive severe punishment (Yoreh Deah 240:7). In all instances, the son should definitely not tell his parents that he is using tzedakah money to take care of them.