Norman Bates, Elder Care, and Jesus on the Cross

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) horrifies for more than one reason. The reason I have in mind is only rarely mentioned in treatments of that film: going insane by taking care of an elderly mother who is already dead.

If all you can recall from that film is the now classic image of Janet Leigh’s character being brutally murdered in a shower, I invite you to consider the previous scene. Anthony Perkins’ character, Norman Bates, describes his conflicted relationship with his elderly mother. When Leigh’s character suggests that he might “institutionalize” his mother, he strenuously objects, insisting that he could never abandon her. The rest of the film unfolds with classic Hitchcock tension and, well, horror.

All of this cuts close to my bones as I am an only child of an elderly mother. Until recently, I thought I might be going insane trying to take care of my mom in my own home; I refused other options because I didn’t want to “abandon her.” I did that for nearly four years before she moved to a wonderful elder care residence not far from my house last month. My sanity – and thus my life – is slowly returning.

I share this because it’s not just my story. It is the story of a large and growing number of people in the United States and hardly anyone talks about it. I never heard it mentioned in this year’s Presidential debates and I never hear it mentioned in national or state budget negotiations. This is at least odd if not infuriating.

Did you know that Medicare does not cover nursing home expenses except for short-term stays after a hospitalization?

The looming (and already-upon-us) crisis is thus two-fold: emotional and financial. Responding to that two-fold crisis will mean delving into the truly peculiar character of Christian faith and practice.

The Emotional Toll
Through social media I stay in touch with a small group of peers and friends who are dealing with various kinds of elder care. Their stories and anecdotes are by turn hilarious, heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, and inspiring as we try to support each other as best we can.

Don’t for a moment think that “going insane” from dealing with an elderly parent is restricted to a Hitchcock film. The phrases and images I hear from these friends include: “I’m losing my mind”; “I’m desperate here, please help”; “I can’t keep doing this but I don’t have any options”; “I have to quit my job to care for him, but then how do I pay the bills?” That’s a short list of the emotional and relational agony of doing this work of love and devotion – and that’s what it is.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Norman Bates is not an outlier. I would wager that some of your friends and colleagues are, right now, on the brink of “Bates-related-insanity.”

The Financial Toll
The “fiscal cliff”? Really? Let me — and so many others — tell you about a fiscal cliff. Those of us caring for elderly parents sit on that edge every day. But don’t just take my word for it,. The demographic statistics are alarming. I have found a modicum of sanity in my life only because of some fortuitous financial resources. The vast majority of people in this country don’t have that luxury. Consider the following factoids from this helpful site:

  • Chance that a senior citizen will become physically or cognitively impaired in their lifetime: 2 in 3
  • Chance that a senior citizen will enter a nursing home: 1 in 3
  • Chance that a patient in a U.S nursing home is sedated or physically restrained: 1 in 2
  • Average cost to stay in a US nursing home for one year: $76,680
  • Percentage of older population with long term care needs who live at or near the poverty level: 40%

So, have an extra $75,000 to throw around to take care of granny? No? What will you do? Are you single, like me? Who the hell is going to take care of you when you get old and “useless”?

Jesus on the Cross
I am absolutely convinced that retrieving the peculiarity of Christian faith and practice can help with our elder care crisis and so much more. How about this: As Jesus suffered in extremis on the cross, he looked at the “disciple whom he loved” and at his mother. Here’s how “John” described that moment:

“Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” (John 19:25-27).

  • John’s Jesus exposes the lie at the heart of today’s religious rhetoric about “family values.”
    John’s Jesus excoriates all those religious leaders extolling “traditional marriage” while their elders languish.
    John’s Jesus urges a robust critique of the “nuclear family” as the building block for late global capitalism.
    John’s Jesus, in the very throes of death, offers a compelling vision for creating a humane and thriving society that values elders by creating homes.

John’s Jesus fuels my impatience for any “Christian economics” that doesn’t account for the care, nurture, and love of the elders among us. The crisis is here. What shall our peculiar Christian faith say about it? Is your church even talking about the social policy implications of all this?

Much more needs to be done today about Christian faith and economics, not to mention families.

Isn’t it time to retrieve the revolutionary implications of the Gospel? Sound too radical? Do you have an elderly parent?

Author: The Rev. Dr. Jay

I'm an Episcopal priest, parish pastor, and Christian theologian as well as a writer, teacher, and occasionally, a poet. I'm committed to the transforming energy of the Christian gospel and its potential to change the world -- even today. Now that's peculiar, thank God!

9 thoughts on “Norman Bates, Elder Care, and Jesus on the Cross”

  1. Jay,
    Brilliant, salient, candid. Really fine work, as usual. The realities as the middle-aged child of an aging parent are scary. I’m blessed that my mom is healthy and that we have means for the moment, but I get a little psycho when I think about my looming elder years. I wonder if Janet Leigh’s character had the solution: rob a bank.

    1. Well, yes, David. Exactly. I can’t imagine how all of this will be handled when I’m older and losing even more of my mind than I already have. And yes, Janet Leigh’s character got it right… 🙂

  2. This one’s cutting close to home, Jay, as I struggle with the anxieties (of which Guilt, with a capital G, stands out as the most ubiquitous) of having an elderly parent. It’s disturbing, really, to be faced with such neediness, and even more disturbing to feel I’m not doing my part in meeting my mother’s needs.

    The Gospel quite clearly tells us that we are to make a new life, a new family in Christ – one that isn’t based on tribal or genetic bonds, but bonds of love (I think that’s what’s at the root of Jesus harsh pronouncements about leaving family behind), and we see that at work later, in accounts such as those of Perpetua and her companions. It was at work in the rise of coenobitic monasticism, as well.

    Perhaps our new idea of the religious life ought to be one in which the church helps members care for the elderly, for the differently abled, for those unable, for whatever reason, to care for themselves without the community. Perhaps it ought to be, on a much broader scale, coenobitic?


    Peter P. C. Carlson, Ph.D.

    Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion

    California Lutheran University

    “Quisquis igitur se fatetur veritatis, felicitatis, sapientie vel scientie, seu etiam fidei zelatorem, librorum necesse est se faciat amatorem.”

    “Whoever, therefore, claims to be zealous of truth, of happiness, of wisdom or knowledge, yes, even of the Faith, must needs become a lover of books.”

    -Richard de Bury

    1. Peter, yes. That cuts the heart of the matter in my view. Of course we need faith communities stepping up to the plate to help in this area. AND, I believe we need faith communities leading the substantive critique of how our society is currently structured and offering visions for a different way. The demographic realities will press this on more and more in the years to come…

  3. Jay, This is a critical, deeply important call to action, or actually, several calls to action. How true you speak, deeply knowing of which you speak and as always you bring social justice and your peculiar faith together in incredible ways. This article moves me deeply. Is there not a way to bring caregivers together so they can at least support each other? I know there is, or must be.

    I have heard more than one conversation about the need to bring young people in the church. I hope they come. But the economic necessities that drive those conversations (i.e. the future of the church) ignore the needs of so many of the aging. The work and expense of care, the loneliness of all involved, a loneliness that begets loneliness in the particular society in which we live. Your piece moves me deeply. Thank you.


    1. Thanks much for these comments, Niels. I certainly agree — this is a critical issue. I’ve managed to bring some caregivers together on a Facebook site, and that’s helpful. But of course more needs to happen, you know, like restructuring our society.

  4. Jay, Niels forwarded your article. I’m resonating with it deeply. Having spent several years as a single mother of a young child, I became aware of the cost in a very personal way of a society that lends no value to the work of caregiving. I’ve thought often of the parallel experience of adult children caring for aging parents.

    The reality is that each and every one of us, between childhood, old age, and perhaps in times of sickness in between, will spend many years relying on someone to care for us. That our collective systems and public policies do not reflect this reality is an outrage. It means that those who can afford to “buy care” do so, and everyone else must cobble care together around other work and commitments. In both scenarios, care providing remains invisible as a valuable contribution to society.

    Thank you for so articulately naming this issue. As a Christian who believes we are called to create alternative community, and to rail against unjust social systems, I receive your article as a call to action. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to respond, Angela! I agree entirely: care-giving of any kind is way undervalued in our society. I also think the very structure of our society mitigates against sane and healthy ways to care for one another. We need compelling new visions for all this…

  5. It is hard to imagine that anyone can afford to have there parents in a home for any extended period of time. There are options like assisted living which can be helpful and not impose on the pocket book to heavily. I know the stress of taking care of a parent can be overwhelming and in those times it may be the best time to take a break and find some help in some way. Even if its an adult day care service once or twice a week so you can get better control of yourself.

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