The blessings and burdens of caregiving

studyAbout ten years ago, Cynthia took on an important role for her mother, Edith: that of caregiver.  At that time, Cynthia started to care for Edith (who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease) personally, financially, emotionally, and spiritually.  Edith was such a supportive mother for Cynthia; Cynthia is now doing the same for her.

As Cynthia’s and Edith’s roles reversed, Cynthia realized that being a caregiver was both a blessing and a burden.  Cynthia had moments of fulfillment and joy, as well moments of resentment and anger.  It was a pleasure to help Edith, but the more time Cynthia took to care for her, the more she felt strained, pressured, and mistreated.   No one seemed to help Cynthia, and the blessings of care turned into an endless obligation of dread.

Cynthia is not alone.  The National Alliance of Caregivers states that nearly 29% of the U.S. population (up 5% since 2005) consists of people who care for loved ones, the elderly, or special needs children.   Like Cynthia, many of these caregivers confront mixed feelings of satisfaction and of suffering.

In our society, we depend upon our families for support.   This is, for all practical purposes, the way the world turns.   Yet, we pay very little attention to just how much the task of caregiving requires in terms of time, money, personal energy, and stress.

We certainly fail to see how much strain caregiving places on individuals who are struggling with economic pressures, precarious careers, and much-needed time to raise healthy families.  Nevertheless, despite the many burdens caregivers face, society passes this expectation on from one generation to the next.

Churches have traditionally praised the role of caregivers without pointing out shortfalls.   We hear from the pulpit that Jesus commands us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him.  When God seemingly asks us to care for loved ones, we are deny ourselves yet again.

It is this very denial that creates the burdens that sometimes hinder the blessings afforded by healthy caregiving.  By “taking up their crosses,” Caregivers neglect the self-care needed to retreat, renew, rest, and exercise.   Often, caregivers simply don’t have the time to do the things that lead to a more balanced lifestyle.

Self-care takes a back-seat in the face of productivity and pressures: Caregivers work hard to please their loved ones.  To do any less creates feelings of guilt and of impending failure.  This, in turn, feeds a vicious cycle that spirals out of control: blessings, joy, exhaustion, guilt, resentment, anger.

A week passes–perhaps a month or a season–and the cycle begins again.  Caregivers end up broken, spent, and lonely.  Is there ever a chance for renewal, even if only for a few moments at a time?

According to therapists, spiritual leaders, and caregivers well-versed in this field, the answer is a resounding “yes!”   Many studies show that when caregivers invest even a few minutes a week in growing spiritually, attending church (one hour on Sunday will do!), and taking intentional steps to enact self-care, they gain the resources and energy needed to cope with the burdens associated with their particular journey.

This Advent season, let’s make several commitments:

  • If you are a caregiver, commit to doing one spiritual exercise a week to enact self-care.
  • If you know a caregiver, intentionally support that caregiver by offering to care for his or her loved one for a few hours so that the caregiver may go Christmas shopping, etc.
  • If you represent a church, brain-storm ways to minister to caregivers–and care receivers–in our community.

All of us can pitch in a help!  Be a blessing to caregivers to alleviate those caregiver burdens!

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