“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6:2)
I wasn’t looking to become a family caregiver, nor did I think I was particularly well-equipped to be one. Nevertheless, as my parents aged, I naturally fell into the role. My father, who lived nearby, was diagnosed with Stage IV prostate cancer at the age of 81. My mother, who lives a six-hour drive away, was hospitalized for atrial fibrillation, then several years later, required a total knee replacement.
I became a part-time caregiver to both of them, waiting at the hospital during surgeries, assisting with post-surgical care, accompanying my dad to oncologist’s appointments, and helping them both navigate the medical maze that is modern health care. When our 23-year-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumor during the same season that my dad’s health radically deteriorated, my role as caregiver expanded; work and leisure were shoved to the side.
My story as a caregiver is slightly unusual because so many people in our family needed care at the same time, but it is not uncommon for a woman in her mid- to late 50s to be juggling care for aging parents. According to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP study of 2015, “Approximately 43.5 million caregivers have provided unpaid care to an adult or child in the last 12 months.” As The Institute on Aging study of 2016 revealed, “Upwards of 75% of all caregivers are female, and may spend as much as 50% more time providing care than males.”
Most churches care well for the sick, but sometimes the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of caregivers are overlooked.
Such statistics suggest that as the population ages, the number of caregivers in our churches will continue to increase. Most churches care well for the sick, but sometimes the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of caregivers are overlooked. How can churches address the growing need for ministry to caregivers? The church can help to “bear the burden” of caregiving in these six important ways:
1. Pray for caregivers when you pray for the sick.
One woman teared up when I told her I was writing a devotional for caregivers of people in health crisis. She told me, “I am so glad you are writing for the caregivers. When I hear a prayer request for someone who is very sick, I always pray for the person caring for them too.” This woman had experienced the caregiving burden firsthand, and she understood how the heavy weight of caregiving can wear down the soul and weary the body.
Pray for the caregiver, and whenever possible, pray with them. Call or visit the caregiver, and instead of telling them you are praying for them, go ahead and do it. A praying voice soothes frenzied spirits, for prayer is a river of life poured into a thirsty soul. In the same way, if you are texting or emailing a caregiver, consider writing out a prayer to send. When our son had to have four brain surgeries in a seven-month period, I sometimes found it difficult to form the words to pray. Well-thought-out prayers sent to me by friends gave me the vocabulary and the voice to petition and praise God.
2. Listen well for the spiritual and emotional struggles caregivers may experience, and respond with a well-timed word from the Word.
While most caregivers say that their role brings joy as well as sorrow, they also admit that they often feel overwhelmed. It is not uncommon for caregivers to experience spiritual struggles. Many affirm the reality that God is sovereign; yet, at times, doubt and confusion assail them.
At the same time as our son was recovering from his third brain surgery, my father’s health severely declined. Arriving at the assisted-living facility where my dad lived, I would sometimes find him wearing only a t-shirt and a diaper, flailing in pain and fentanyl-induced confusion. I cried out to God, “How long will this suffering last?” Wise friends joined me in my grief, reminding me that we were groaning with all of creation and awaiting our future hope (Romans 8:22-23).
Avoid giving quick-fix answers to the caregiver’s profound questions and deep concerns about the loved one’s suffering. Meet the caregiver with the love of Christ, who looked and listened and wept with Lazarus’ friends and family (John 11). Meet the caregiver with the presence of God, who had compassion for Job’s struggles, but also firmly reminded Job of his command of the cosmos (Job 38-39).
3. Offer wise counsel concerning end-of-life decision-making.
As a caregiver, I was grateful that I managed to convince my father to make an advanced directive soon after his diagnosis with late-stage prostate cancer. Even with a directive in place, we were faced with making decisions about care near the end of his life that provoked conflict and turmoil within our family. Was the measure we were taking “life-sustaining,” or was it “palliative”?
Churches can equip leaders—elders, deacons, women’s ministry leaders, and lay leaders—to understand the issues regarding end-of-life medical decisions and to give helpful biblical counsel. As Dr. Bill Davis, philosophy professor, ordained PCA elder, and hospital consultant, explains in his comprehensive book and curriculum, Departing in Peace: Biblical Decision-making at the End of Life, too few people are prepared to discuss death. And yet, Christians of all people have an excellent foundation for making wise end-of-life decisions. We can look to Scripture to guide us, we know the value of human life to God, and we have the hope of eternal life.
Pray for the caregiver, and whenever possible, pray with them. Call or visit the caregiver, and instead of telling them you are praying for them, go ahead and do it.
4. Recognize the financial struggles caregivers face and offer assistance.
Sarah, like many women of her era, had left financial management primarily to her husband. When he was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer, she was overwhelmed by the financial duties suddenly thrust upon her. Because he was the primary breadwinner, his illness also affected their income.
Paying bills, filing for insurance, and making plans for long-term care are among the myriad tasks that add to the caregiver’s heavy burden. Churches can help the caregiver with financial tasks in at least two ways. The first and perhaps most important is to offer assistance in managing the financial responsibilities. Church leaders or members who have professional expertise can come alongside the caregiver to help with tasks or guidance. Alternatively, the church may temporarily subsidize professional financial counsel. In addition, the church may offer financial assistance for a season when a health crisis causes shortfalls.
5. Offer respite care.
Once, about five days after one of our son’s brain surgeries, I had been scheduled to teach a Bible study at the jail. My partner in ministry gave me two choices—either she would teach the study in my place, or she would stay with our son so I could go and teach. My friend knew it would do my heart good to get out of the house for a while and to receive the joy of sharing the gospel with others.
In the same way, the church can offer to stay with the loved one so the caregiver can get out and attend Bible study, run errands, exercise, or go to doctor’s appointments. Where skilled care is required, the church may provide financial assistance to pay for a trained worker. This way, the caregiver can leave, feeling comfortable that her loved one is well-cared-for.
6. Assist with practical needs.
In her excellent book, What Grieving People Wish You Knew, Nancy Guthrie shares the story of a neighbor who decorated their house for Christmas when their infant child was hospitalized with a terminal illness. As Guthrie points out, grieving people (and caregivers are grieving) are often so overwhelmed, they don’t know how to answer when someone asks, “What can I do for you?” For this reason, it is best if church members offer to do specific tasks.
Women’s ministries or individuals can organize meals so that the caregiver is not overwhelmed with a glut of food. Youth groups can be deployed for yard work or car washing. Individuals can offer to run specific errands; a Bible study group might get together to clean the house. Consider the everyday life of the caregiver and imagine what tasks need to be done, then offer to do one of them. In such practical ways, the church becomes the hands and feet of Jesus.
Throughout its history, the church has followed Jesus’ lead in caring well for the sick. As the aging populations of our churches increase, it is crucial for us to learn how to bring gospel comfort to the caregiver.
Elizabeth Reynolds Turnage, founder of Living Story, is a writer and teacher ( https://www.elizabethturnage.com/). She has written The Waiting Room: 60 Meditations for Finding Peace and Hope in a Health Crisis. Married to ruling elder Kip Turnage, Elizabeth has four grown children, three of whom are married. She has acted as caregiver to both of her parents and her adult son during various health crises.