Soon after Don and Judy joined the church, Judy’s octogenarian mother, Flo, moved into their home due to “memory issues”. Flo attended services with her daughter and son-in-law for about 18 months. Worship had been her only connection with the congregation during these months in her daughter’s community. Slowly, Judy and Flo’s attendance at worship was less and less frequent. Don came by himself eventually sharing that Flo had moved into advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. After a few tumultuous weeks in a nursing setting, it was decided that she would return to Don and Judy’s home and they would be the caregivers.
We probably don’t have to pause too long before the names of others come to mind who have assumed significant responsibility for caring for aging loved ones. About 80% of the care that is provided to individuals in their homes, is unpaid care by family members. Two-thirds of these care givers are women. One-half of care givers are assisting their loved ones with daily tasks of living (bathing, feeding etc.) requiring at least 21 hours of direct care a week.
My great uncle Ken was diagnosed with cancer and thanks to the care of his spouse, Aunt Irene, he was able to spend the last years of his life in their home. A bedroom was added onto the first floor along with a bathroom to accommodate his needs. It was physically demanding work for Irene’s petite frame. She was the primary caregiver 24/7 for his last years. Not long after Uncle Kenny’s death, Irene was diagnosed with cancer and passed away almost exactly two years later.
The reality is that the stress which caregivers experience can have significant impact on their own health and quality of life. This is the result of the mental and physical demands they experience including the fatigue that comes with 24-hour care. As reported by Sheila Goodman in her article “Caregivers beware! The Impacts of Caregiver Stress”, care-giving can lead to as much as a 63% increase in the mortality risk for the caregiver.
Goodman lifts up a few helpful ways to help relieve Care Givers stress that I believe would be good for congregations to consider in their own ministry: First is encouraging, educating and supporting Caregivers to engage in their own self-care: “Eating a healthy diet, exercise, participating in a support system, maintaining a spiritual connection and seeking outside assistance when needed”. What are the ways that your congregation continues to reach out to help make that spiritual connection possible?
The second thing that needs to be done is to communicate that “they need to know about resources to help them process and deal with their own conflict about this new role with the other roles in their own lives. For adult children who provide the care, they may also be trying to balance their relationships with their own children and grandchildren, they may also be working and trying to balance their own significant relationships.” Do we offer sufficient pastoral support or care through the caring ministry support system in the congregation? There is a wealth of resources and links to various organizations on the website for the National Alliance for Care Givers that might be helpful for pastors, Care Ministry teams, and Care Givers.
The third thing that would help to support caregivers is general education of how to provide the care. “Just because we love our family members doesn’t mean that we know how best to provide the care they need. Caregivers can be helped by receiving education or training on things like how to lift a patient, how to dispense medications and keep track of them, what symptoms are to be expected and how to respond to various symptoms.” Who are those in your congregation who provide daily care professionally? Could they help to provide “best practices” to help reduce the stress and physical strain of the day in and day out details of care giving?
And the final point that Goodman lifts up is that research indicates that those caregivers who have a spiritual connection “experienced lower levels of stress and a deeper sense of meaning in their caregiver role”. What are the out-of-the-box ways that your congregation could connect with care givers and other busy and stressed members? Bible study using What’sApp? What about a visit via facetime or skype at a time convenient with the care giver? Could we provide volunteers to stay with the loved one while the care giver attends a worship service once a month?
According to the CDC, in 2008 there were 34 million unpaid caregivers in the U.S. Given the aging of the population and the trend that people are staying in health care facilities for much shorter stays, the number of people who will be providing care for loved ones will only increase. The need to help support caregivers is more important than ever. We can either let the daughters like Judy disappear from the life of our congregations as they shoulder the daily care of their parents, or we can work together to help improve their quality of life and receive the blessing that comes when the burden and stress is shared and eased. Then we are all reminded of the strength that comes through the connection of life truly lived in community.
Rev. Beth Long-Higgins serves as Director of Outreach and Mission Integration at United Church Homes in Marion, Ohio, a member organization of the United Church of Christ Council for Health and Human Services Ministries.