4 trends in building successful communities of care

By Joe LaGuardia

In a recent joint effort by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and RTI International, researchers Erin Long, Sari Shuman, et. al. explored five inter-faith communities that provide care for loved ones suffering with dementia and their caregivers.

Their research, entitled “Faith-Related Programs in Dementia Care, Support, and Education,” summarizes best practices in religious support for families and caregivers and tips on how to build strong, sustainable communities of care.

Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the research highlights four trends that make for successful communities of care.

1.  Faith adds to well-being.  Faith-based communities provide benefits for dementia care and caregivers.  As our research here at A Tapestry of Love affirms, faith-based communities provide countless benefits to caregivers and their loved ones.  As Long and Shuman, et. al., note, “Studies have shown that spirituality and religious activity may provide relief from anxiety, reduced behavioral disturbances, and improved quality of life for people with dementia” (Long and Shuman, 3).

Yet, they also affirm that religious activity wanes over time because of the declining health of loved ones.  We too, found that to be a problem: The longer a caregiver and her loved one stay home, the fewer cards, visits, and invitations to activities take place over time.

Faith-based communities of care, however, can close the gap for caregivers and their families who need solace, support, and ongoing professionalized care.  Communities can provide, for instance, intentional programs that increase health and wellness, support groups, educational workshops, and spiritual practices that promote faith and discipleship.

Caregivers provide hours of care to loved ones; houses of worship must be intentional to either meet their needs or work with others to help provide support and resources along the journey of faith.

2.   Collaboration promotes sustainable support.  Faith-based communities that collaborate are sustainable and successful in prolonging and providing support.  Those providing support for caregivers and their families–and churches that seek to do the same–cannot go it alone.  Of all five communities in Long and Shuman’s research, each one collaborated with other churches, non-profits, and government agencies for volunteer training, grant and fundraising awareness, space usage, resource allocation, and diversified support.

When it comes to caring for families, churches need to reach out to one another and even other faith groups for support.  In some instances, one church provided space for a program, while other churches in the area provided volunteers.  Local associations, such as the Alzheimer’s Association, provided educational resources to train volunteers, and caregivers.

Collaboration also promotes a wider participation from the community, including promotion of events and workshops, as well as little things that make a difference, such as providing transportation for loved ones and their families to get to support groups and the community.  In one instance, a local taxi service provided subsidized transportation to and from the community center.

As resources are few and quality volunteers limited, it is in the best interest that faith-based communities seek collaborative models for caring for all God’s children in their local area.

3.  Space assures sacred and safe interactions.  Another successful aspect of dementia and caregiver care was the devotion to a specific space for support and programming.  Some of the institutions that were a part of the study had stand-alone spaces, while others found sites that provided space.

Whether it is stand-alone or a partnership, having a safe and devoted space for care and support assures safety and sacred interactions.  This is especially important with people with dementia: Routine and predictability promote well-being, and having a space that is familiar allows for people to feel comfortable and welcomed.

Having a devoted space also allows for ongoing education and volunteer training.  Volunteers work within the confines of a manageable area, know all of the resources that are at hand, and value having a meeting place where they can interact with people who need room to grow, be, and live out their calling as caregivers or care receivers.

Stand-alone facilities, though difficult to come by, are optimal for this type of ministry.  The researchers noted that one community, the Amazing Place in Houston, Texas, boasts a 13,700-square foot building that includes a chapel, art studio, game room, kitchen, conference and training rooms, sitting areas, and a courtyard.  This was made possible by a dream from St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston and the church’s willingness to work with non-profits and other faith groups in the area to secure the space, funding, and the 250 volunteers needed to run the full-time effort.

4.  Faith, Collaboration, and Sacred Space enhance creative engagement.  Creative engagement with loved ones emerge when we put faith to work, collaborate with others, and devote a sacred space to care and support others.  Although many communities provide basic services–fellowship meals, chapel services, and support groups–these trends lend themselves to other creative ventures:

  • A writer’s workshop can help dementia patients find creative avenues to tell their story and leave a written legacy for loved ones.
  • A movie or film night with caregivers can promote new ways of seeing their role as caregivers and can encourage intentional conversations about the promises or perils of the caregiving life.
  • Caregiver workshops can provide much-needed resources for self-care, grief support, or caregiver empowerment.
  • Webinars can expand the promotional base of a ministry, as well as provide ongoing education to the community at large.

As communities continue to experience ministry to those suffering from dementia and the caregivers who help serve that most vulnerable population, it will be increasingly important for faith-based support services to reach out in ever creative ways.  Research shows that support services make a difference.  Faith, collaboration, sacred space, and creative engagement only bolster the type of resources that make for a great, well-rounded community of care.

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Psalm 55 and the Throes of Honest Grief

praiseBy Joe LaGuardia

Like many who grieve the loss of a loved one over the holidays, this past Christmas has been particularly difficult for me.  I lost my father over two years ago, but the waves of grief (see chapter 6 in our book!) come at me in different intervals.  Sometimes I can stand and resist; other times, grief wipes me out and its hard to surface.

As an introvert, it is also difficult for me to express this grief.  I have a good support system, but putting my feelings into words is not always easy.

I am not alone in this challenge, and Daphne and I have taught people for years that the book of Psalms is God’s set of prayers for us, gifted to us, that helps us find the right words to say when we need to talk to God.

No wonder there are psalms of celebration, lament, hope, grief, despair, anger, joy, and blessings.  No human condition or emotion has escaped the scope of the psalms in the fullest expression of our soul to God.

For those grieving, I encourage you to check out Psalm 55.  I have been praying this psalm every day since the beginning of the week, and when I stumbled upon it, I kept praising God that there is a psalm that puts words to my deepest emotions.

There are movements in the psalm that might be familiar to others who are grieving:

V. 1 – Provides words for those who feel abandoned.  The poet pleads with God, “Do not hide yourself from me.”  Many people think that feelings of abandonment is a sign of weak or absent faith.  Quite the contrary, revealing those feelings to God is an honest affirmation that God will respond.

V. 2- Expresses those times when the noise of the world crowds in around us.  It is deafening, and we need solace.

V. 4- Affirms that those who grieve truly have a broken heart.  Our grief is real.  It is not a figment of our imagination, nor is it a process we can simply “get over.”  Acknowledging that fact can be a frightening but liberating experience.

V. 6– This verse is my favorite.  In the midst of grief the other night, I told my wife that sometimes I just want to run and hide.  This is normal (though, again, very frightening).  This verse gives a poetic reminder that I am not alone in my feelings of running, of choosing “flight” over the “fight” instinct:

I say, ‘O that I had wings like a dove!  I would fly away and be at rest; truly, I would flee.”

There is no better way to say it!

V.  13 – There are times when our friends try and help us, but only provide cliché or vacuous platitudes that make matters worse.  This is not their fault, but the closest friends will know when to speak and when to listen.

Historically, this verse gives us a deeper clue into the heart of the author of Psalm 55: He or she has been hurt by a friend, and a promise had been broken.  This is the source of grief.  Although the source of our grief may be different, we do understand where the author is coming from: words matter, and sometimes our friends are no friends at all in matters of heartache and loss.

V. 16 – This verse marks a turning point in the Psalm.  The author, once expressing all of the honest feelings that accompany grief, can turn to a posture of hope and trust in the Lord.  There is an expression of hope: “The Lord will save me.”  Later, in verses 19 and 23, there are expressions of trust.  The Psalm ends with a declarative statement, “But I will trust in you!”

V. 22 – As in many other psalms, this one includes an invitation for others to join the author in praying to God and coming to God for help.  Since God is in charge (see v. 19), then anyone can come to God and be honest with God.  As Christians, those of us who are in Christ, do not fear bridging that divide between our lowly positions on earth and God’s majestic presence on the heavenly throne.  We should follow the call of the author: “Cast your burdon on the Lord, and God will sustain you!”

As I was praying through this psalm yesterday, I stumbled on a devotional by F. B. Meyer who quoted an anonymous (at least he didn’t give the source) poem that sums up the geography and movement of this psalm.  It moved me too:

Oh for the faith to cast our load,
E’en while we pray, upon  our God,
Then rise with lightened cheer
.

Amen.

Caregivers: Hopegivers for the Future

helping-handBy Joe LaGuardia

In his address to the U.S. Congress several weeks ago, Pope Francis noted that young people do not have a positive outlook for the future.

“We live in a culture,” he said, “which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future.”

Although it sounds like His Holiness is exaggerating, research affirms this observation.  Young people have very little hope for the future: They marry later, bear less children, and feel that they work longer hours for less wages.

For the first time in recent history, adults no longer feel their children will be better off in years to come, according to a Pew Research survey.  That middle class income has remained stagnate or in decline the last three decades has not helped anyone’s outlook.

Movers and shakers in our culture have not provided any solutions to turn the tide, and our faith in politicians in shaping a better future has collapsed in congressional malaise.

Some only offer the common lament, “If only we can do things like we did when I was young…”; while others provide avenues for nostalgia in order to combat our woes.  Just think of how many movies reboot previous films and genres.

Yet, nostalgia and longing for the impossible will not provide hope for the future.  Optimism will continue to allude those who are searching for answers from yesteryear.

The church, the very people of God, walk to the beat of a different drum.  We Christians need not fear the future or face it in despair, for we know the future that stands before us.  Caregivers–especially those who care for both young and old, or the “sandwich” generation as they are called–are particularly poised to provide hope for the future.

God asks that we be a community of hope and boundless aspiration, a people who tell what God’s future entails and embody the values that adhere to a future utterly bound up in God’s plan for all history.

We Christians maintain the belief that we are saved in Christ.  In turn, we are only residing in the waiting room of life, but it is a waiting room that we are to tend and keep beautiful, to make safe and welcoming for others who need hope for the future.  As caregivers, we are also caretakers, and hopegivers, in this waiting room, balancing hospitality with service and self-care.

Caregivers stand in the shadow of a transformative past and a Holy Spirit that empowers us in the present, but our faith always looks ahead to a future in which Christ is pulling all things closer to that day when the Kingdom of God is fully realized.  Ours is a future-looking faith.

Our worldview does not share in the pessimism of others.  We do not fear the future as others do, for we know God is in charge and that the arc of history (as Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated) bends toward justice and grace.

Without fear entangling us, we can turn our attention to a meaningful life that is freed from paranoia and anxiety.  We can focus on justice by paying attention to our care receivers, the poor, caring for our environment, and being agents of reconciliation by combating violence in all its forms.

We also need to affirm that we are people with aspirations for all creation–and we must encourage our young people to aspire just the same.  This means working hard no matter the salary because we work with the joy of the Lord as our strength and the strength of the Lord as our refuge of peace.

Trust, gratitude, and compassion result from a life lived in the anticipation that God will someday make all things right, that our temporary state of dysfunction and brokenness is but a small bump in the road of God’s grand scheme of eternal life.

I think its about time that we Christians boldly step out in front of the rest of the world and declare, “Follow us, we know the way because we follow Jesus into the future; we follow a Savior who is the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).