Mary, a parishioner in the Davenport Diocese, unexpectedly entered the role of family caregiver three years ago when her husband, Steve, newly retired and just 65, began his journey with dementia. She, too, had just retired. The couple looked forward to spending more time with their children and grandchildren and moved here to be in closer proximity. Mary thanks God for the fortuitous decision. She needs family, friends and fellow parishioners to lean on. “It’s so hard to watch him go downhill,” she says.
Rita, a fellow parishioner, can empathize with Mary. She is a caregiver to her husband, Marv, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. The husband of each woman does not recognize or accept fully his limitations, which makes caregiving especially challenging. Mary goes to the oil change shop on the sly to get the oil changed in the car because her husband can no longer perform that task, even though he thinks he can. Rita’s husband thinks he is more agile on his feet but is not and falls frequently. “I just wish he wouldn’t fall,” Rita says.
Both women are among the more than 70 million family caregivers in the U.S. caring for aging or chronically ill loved ones, or young children or adult children with disabilities, according to Nourish for Caregivers. The nonprofit organization strives to support and empower caregivers through the gift of faith.
This month, National Family Caregivers Month serves as a reminder to honor and support family caregivers, “many of whom are juggling a full-time job, under-resourced or who are suffering from depression, chronic stress and medically-related conditions themselves” (Nourish for Caregivers newsletter).
Adding to the stress is the struggle of many Americans to “find affordable, high-quality care for themselves and their loved ones,” as President Joe Biden notes in his 2023 proclamation for National Family Caregivers Month. Care workers “remain among the lowest-paid workers in the country, though their jobs are some of the most demanding,” Biden wrote. The American Rescue Plan provided $145 million “to help the National Family Caregiver Support Program to deliver counseling, training and short-term relief to family caregivers and other informal care providers,” he said.
Challenges remain. Mary’s efforts to obtain counseling for herself has hit a dead end, she said, for lack of Medicare funding and a scarcity of in-person counselors who can relate to her experience. Rita worries about imposing on anyone for help. However, she would love to take a day off to visit her sister who lives out of town.
Think of the thousands of caregivers like Mary and Rita who have similar needs, wants and concerns. Our Catholic Church calls us as individuals, parishioners and parish communities — to respond to these needs, even those of us who are caregivers. We offer what we can of our talents and skills, our physical, intellectual and emotional abilities, and our financial resources.
The Catholic Church’s corporal and spiritual works of mercy apply, such as these suggestions from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website (https://tinyurl.com/97s2vt9u and https://tinyurl.com/5y9m6dyd):
- Take time one day a week to stop and visit with an elderly neighbor.
- Offer to assist caregivers of chronically sick family members on a one-time or periodic basis.
- Give caregivers time off from their caregiving responsibilities so they can rest, complete personal chores or enjoy a relaxing break.
- Next time you make a meal that is easy to freeze, make a double batch and give it to a family in your parish who has a sick loved one.
- Lend a listening ear to those going through a tough time.
- Write a letter or send a card to someone who is suffering.
Mary and Rita also offer these suggestions, based on their personal experiences:
- If you are a caregiver, ask for help. It may be difficult to do so, but “you need help,” Mary said.
- Find dignified ways to be present to — rather than to “babysit” — a caregiver’s loved one. Take the loved one on a trip to the museum or the park or stop by with a treat to share and stories to tell.
- Offer to be available for a call when the caregiver needs someone to talk to.
- Caregivers, remind yourself: “This is Jesus I’m taking care of.”
Make use of available resources:
- Nourish for Caregivers (nourishforcaregivers.com). The nonprofit meets caregivers where they are and supports them in churches, healthcare facilities and homes nationwide. Nourish offers a Christ-centered curriculum to address the spiritual needs of caregivers along with their practical and emotional needs. Groups explore the most common challenges every caregiver faces, in a welcoming and encouraging environment.
- Caregiver Action Network (CaregiverAction.org). The organization’s campaign this year, #CaregiversConnect, emphasizes “the importance of connections in an effort to combat caregiver isolation and promote self-identification.” This allows caregivers to connect more readily with helpful resources along the way, including the Area Agency on Aging, respite care programs, adult day services, meals on wheels, Alzheimer’s Association, HFC (Hilarity for Charity), Home Instead, Inc.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA offers a comprehensive caregiver program (www.caregiver.va.gov).
- Recommended books: “The 36 Hour Day” by Mace and Rabins, widely known for its authoritativeness and compassionate approach to care.
“Creating Moments of Joy Along the Alzheimer’s Journey: A Guide for Families,” by Jolene Brackey.
“Our whole life has changed, our relationship has changed,” Mary said of serving as a caregiver for her husband, Steve. She knows one thing for sure, “I’m doing Jesus’ work.”
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor