Sandy Lovern writes to the caregiver who is navigating the emotional landscape of providing care for an elderly parent, or other adult. Her approach relies on commonsense wisdom born out of personal experience. She includes numerous Scripture passages that have provided encouragement and strength for the journey.
As a warm-up activity, invite the participants to take a minute or two and, silently or without a lot of conversation, jot down the names of specific people whom they know are charged with caregiving for elderly parents or other adults. You may want to provide an index card and pencil for each participant. Gather these names in a basket or box and display it prominently as an interest center: these are real people who experience daily the challenges you will be discussing today.
- In a poem entitled “The Guardian” by Joseph Mills, one brother observes the response of his brother who gives care to their elderly parent.
“It’s why I expect to hear anger or bitterness in my brother’s voice, and why each time we talk, no matter how closely I listen, I’m astonished to hear only love.”
Often, how are decisions made as to who provides care for the elderly loved one? Would you rather be the one responsible for decision-making and primary care-giving or the brother at a distance? How are each of the roles challenging? What if you don’t choose, but the care-giving is foisted upon you (because you live nearer, for example)?
- Observers have compared giving care to an elderly parent as becoming their parent: role reversal. What kinds of skills are ideal for taking away the car keys from an aging parent, or assuming the bill payment role, or transitioning the adult into a care facility (particularly if they resist moving)? In essence, you are taking away the independence of your parent. What’s the danger in identifying too closely with what your parent is feeling? What do you dread the most in the family caregiving process? Is there advice you would have for someone who is in the beginning stage of caregiving their parent?
- Everyone’s story of caregiving varies, probably because families vary. Their communication patterns and family dynamics are diverse. At some point in nearly every saga, however, the caregiver experiences a meltdown, or something close to it. What does a caregiver do who needs relief? Is it OK to fall apart occasionally? How can the caregiver avoid being the martyr, or embittered, or a fount of negativity? How can the caregiver refresh the best memories of a well-loved parent, rather than the aggravation and frustration of their current state of mind? How does the caregiver react to a parent who doesn’t recognize them any longer?
- Self-care is a necessity for anyone called upon to assume the care of another, particularly an elderly parent (or in-law, aunt, uncle, and so on). Are there meaningful ways that the caregiver can be vigilant for signs of “I need help!” in herself? Where does a caregiver look to find those persons who will support her as she shoulders the heavy-lifting of caregiving? How can you connect with others who are facing the same challenges that you face? Taking time to gird oneself in prayer and reading Scripture can be a great boost. Are there other spiritual practices that are meaningful to the stressed caregiver?
- As a designated caregiver, your role within your own family will shift. You still have only 24 hours in the day, and much of your schedule may be dictated by the needs, wants and expectations of your elderly parent. Describe the tug-of-war that goes on within a caregiver’s heart as she juggles the role within her family (and perhaps a career) with the role of being a caregiver. How are choices about time made? What activities make it to the important list, and what activities reside on the urgent list? How important are family conversations about what appears to be the “new normal” in your life, at least until an aging loved one dies? Who initiates these conversations?
- A sense of humor is often highly individualistic, but the caregiver who cultivates opportunities for laughter is a caregiver who will likely be more optimistic and less stressed. What makes you laugh? Are you a fan of newspaper comic strips, TV sitcoms, or slapstick movies? Is Erma Bombeck your cup of tea? What opportunities do you have for laughter? Being around babies and preschoolers often cause giggles to bubble up, particularly if you’re not their designated babysitter.
- What do you dread or fear most about caregiving? For many, watching their parent depart this world “inch-by-inch” is the greatest challenge. If dementia or Alzheimer’s has robbed the aging adult of their ability to call their child’s name, there is surely cause for sadness. How do you express the yearning you feel for the parent who once was lively, opinionated, and present? That adult has passed off the scene. The often frail body that remains is not quite “Mama” or “Dad.” How do you embody the commandment to honor your parents when you’re strangers to each other?
- The author devotes a chapter (15) to family traditions. Take a few moments and identify the traditions that are likely to end when your aging parent dies. Are there traditions that you, or your children, might take on? Who will carry the torch? Would a conversation with your family surface those traditions that enhance and stabilize family life, and that need to be carried forth into the future? Think of things such as preparing the annual Christmas fruitcake that Mother always did. Or being the family storyteller, which was Dad’s role. Or the one who decorated early for every holiday, or hid the Easter eggs for the children. Carrying on the legacy of a beloved grandparent can be a way to honor their lives.
- Look at the basket (or box) of names that you compiled at the beginning of the discussion. Each name represents an individual who is walking the path of being a caregiver. If appropriate, distribute the cards randomly and invite the participants to pray aloud for names on their cards. In addition, pray for the men and women who are receiving care. They have different levels of understanding about what is happening to them. Pray for their peace and their freedom from fear as the changes come quickly, and sometimes inexplicably.
- Caregiving is a continuum. After the aging loved one dies, the family absorbs the loss of one whom they have loved. Pray for the empty place at the family table and for the grieving loved ones who miss Mom or Dad.
- Pray for the professional caregivers (the aids, nurses, assistants, etc.) who staff the rehab units, assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and so on. One of their challenges is the frequent “good-byes” they must say to aging adults who are in their care. Pray for their patience with the family caregivers as well as the residents themselves.
- Survey your community of faith and identify those who have assumed the roles of caregivers in their families. Consider the appropriateness of establishing a support group time in which these folks could gather and learn from each other. The group could be ongoing or on a periodic basis—quarterly, etc. Think about enlisting someone knowledgeable in geriatrics (a social worker, nurse, or minister to seniors) to provide some “content” for the meeting.
- Would it be practical to provide an occasional respite time for the caregiver? If the caregiver is providing care in their home, having someone trustworthy come over and “sit” for the evening while the caregiver is able to get away could be a great gift.
- Using the names that you gathered at the beginning of the session, write a note of encouragement—I call these “grace notes”—to the caregiver and assure them of your ongoing prayer. Or, make a point to give the caregiver a call to encourage or just listen to what is going on in their lives.