Who's Caring for the Caregiver?

Caregivers often feel misunderstood and forgotten. Plus, their health is at risk. What is being done? What can we do?

Following a devastating stroke at age 47, Mother lived for five years in a vegetative state. The stress of caring for mother at home for four years, rearing four children, working full time, and carrying the burden alone took a heavy toll on my father's heart. Even after she went to a nursing home, he still carried caregiver responsibilities. He was 47 when he passed away.

That was 40 years ago, but I will never forget the havoc mother's long-term illness played with our family. Daddy was facing bankruptcy when he died. I dropped out of my freshman year of college to help care for my mother, and each of my three younger siblings failed a grade in school. My story could be multiplied many times over today.

There are more than 65 million adult caregivers in the United States alone. Quoting a colleague, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter said, "There are only four kinds of people in this world: those who have been caregivers, those who currently are caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers." That about sums it up, doesn't it? So it only makes sense that we acknowledge the serious problems encountered by those who care enough to care for their own. Who will care for the caregivers?

God Cares

We must wonder if God had caregivers in mind when He created the world. "By the seventh day God completed His work that He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work that He had done" (Gen. 2:2). God was not tired, of course, but He knew we would be. He created us to care for one another, but He also created a respite in the form of a sabbath. God does not intend for us to serve out of pity and overlook our own needs. Rather, He wants us to recognize the importance of self-care so we can offer care to others.

The Church Cares

Unfortunately, the church often does not know how to offer care as a ministry to caregivers. How many times have you seen the names of caregivers on prayer lists? We readily remember and pray for those who are ill, but we regularly fail to lift up those who are caring for them. Even if we remember to voice a quick prayer for the caregiver, we often fail to put feet to those prayers.

For five years, Bob and Leslie took care of Leslie's sister, Monica, a vent-dependent quadriplegic. Their church rallied and walked the journey with them until Monica's death. Four ladies volunteered to do light housekeeping one day each month, providing a weekly cleaning. Christian friends brought meals on Mondays and Thursdays, and small groups held monthly Bible studies and fellowships at their home, including refreshments and clean-up.

Churches have mastered "Mother's Day Out" programs. Why not host a "Caregiver's Day Out" ministry? Volunteers could stay with the patient once a week, allowing the caregiver some personal time, whether for a nap or running errands. Churches may benefit from observing volunteer services offered by hospices in their area. Because volunteer services are mandated for hospices, the professionals who direct those services have mastered the art of assisting caregivers.

Youth ministers often look for ministry opportunities for their young people. What about lawn care or helping with heavy jobs, such as flipping mattresses? Adopting a homebound person (or two or three) would not only offer much needed help for the caregiver, it would also contribute to the spiritual maturity of young people as they learn to give of themselves.

The Caregivers Must Care

Because God cares and the church cares, the caregiver must care. Nothing can replace self-care. Unfortunately, our world tends to pay attention to martyrs rather than applauding those who learn to pace themselves and extend their service time. The average length of caregiving is a little over four years. Caregivers who live in the same home as the care recipient spend over 39 hours per week caring for their loved one, while those who live nearby often commit over 20 hours each week. Either scenario quickly steals the caregiver's capacity to give.

Taking care of oneself is not selfish. Rather, it may be the best guarantee of continued care for the one who needs it. It is the most loving thing a caregiver can do. Asking for help is never a sign of weakness; it is a wise sign of strength. Making a list of errands others could run or a schedule of doctor's appointments for transportation help (or sitters while the caregiver goes to the doctor), are only starters. The hardest part is replacing pride with good sense and picking up the phone.

Practice the sabbath God created. Notice the little "s." This is not a call for church attendance. Rather it is recognition that God designed our bodies for rest so we can work. Without rest, our bodies simply cannot function at full capacity. Neither will our brains or our spirits.

Caregivers must strategically locate periods in the day to pull away and examine their situation. They should ask, What do I need? Do I need sleep or a walk? Or is it time to read a book, listen to music, work in the garden, or write in a journal? Thirty-minute or hour breaks every day will enrich the time spent with the patient and extend the life of the caregiver. In the long run, both will be winners.

The African proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child," is just as true when one of God's children needs long-term care. The village must come together to ease the way so the responsible caregiver(s) can go the distance. Ask yourself, "Who is in my village?"

This article is courtesy of Mature Living Magazine.

Dianne Swaim is a retired hospice chaplain and current VA Hospital chaplain. She lives in North Little Rock, Ark., with her husband, Gordon, and may be reached at dianne@freshspirit.com.