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Caregiving: It’s Harder Than It Looks

November 10, 2013

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church, Caregiver Sunday, November 10, 2013 

Psalm 46          Beatitudes for Caregivers

November is National Caregiver Month, and the second Sunday of November is, in the Presbyterian Church, Caregiver Sunday, an opportunity to make very clear within our congregation that it is not only patients, but caregivers, who need the comfort and support of the church community, and to invite the caregivers among us accept the help of any who can competently offer it.

Each and every Sunday there are quite a few of us here in worship who are (or have been) caring for a parent, spouse, sibling or child with chronic or mental illness. It has been said that

“There are four kinds of people in the world; those who are caregivers, those who will be caregivers, those who have been caregivers and those who will need caregivers.”[1]

In other words, this is – sooner or later – about all of us. More than 65 million people, or 29% of the U.S. population, provide care for a chronically ill, disabled, or aged family member or friend during any given year. As the church, we are in a unique position to pray for and offer practical help to caregivers through a variety of means to share hope, care, and provide rest for the soul.

Our second reading this morning is the Beatitudes for Caregivers, published anonymously and modeled on Jesus’ words about the kind of people who bear and share God’s blessings in the world.

Blessed are those who care and who are not afraid to show it — they will let people know they are loved.

Blessed are those who are gentle and patient — they will help people to grow as the sun helps the buds to open and blossom.

Blessed are those who have the ability to listen — they will lighten many a burden.

Blessed are those who know how and when to let go — they will have the joy of seeing people find themselves.

Blessed are those who, when nothing can be done or said, do not walk away, but remain to provide a comforting and supportive presence — they will help the sufferer to bear the unbearable.

Blessed are those who recognize their own need to receive, and who receive with graciousness — they will be able to give all the better.

Blessed are those who give without hope of return — they will give people an experience of God.[2]

Besides a very strong AMEN, I would add that the qualities described here (caring, patience, listening, letting go, remaining present) are spiritual gifts, and that those who exercise them deserve our gratitude and appreciation.

Because it is hard work.

Caregiving touches almost every family and in very different ways – different health conditions, different situations, even different cultures. Family caregivers provide a vast array of emotional, financial, nursing, social, homemaking, and other services on a daily or intermittent basis. But the responsibilities and challenges of caring for a loved one can cause significant stress to the family caregiver. In fact, this stress can build up to actually make the caregiver more susceptible to other health risks such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and increased risk of stroke.

The Alzheimers Association Website provides a helpful list of caregiver stress, and suggests that those experiencing any of these symptoms need to speak with a doctor, pastor of trusted advisor.

Denial about the disease and its effect on the person who has been diagnosed. “I know Mom is going to get better.”

Anger at the person with Alzheimer’s, anger that no cure exists or anger that people don’t understand what’s happening. “If he asks me that one more time I’ll scream!”

Social withdrawal from friends and activities that once brought pleasure. “I don’t care about getting together with friends anymore.”

Anxiety about the future. “What happens when he needs more care than I can provide?”

Depression that begins to break your spirit and affects your ability to cope. “I just don’t care anymore.”

Exhaustion that makes it nearly impossible to complete necessary daily tasks. “I’m too tired for this.”

Sleeplessness caused by a never-ending list of concerns. “What if she wanders out of the house or falls and hurts herself?”

Irritability that leads to moodiness and triggers negative responses and actions. “Leave me alone!”

Lack of concentration that makes it difficult to perform familiar tasks. “I was so busy, I forgot we had an appointment.”

Health problems that begin to take a mental and physical toll. “I can’t remember the last time I felt good.”

Caregiving is hard work, and cannot be done in isolation. I have called this sermon “It’s harder than it looks,” not because any of us doubt that caregiving is hard, but because in my experience talking with exhausted caregivers – it is even HARDER than it looks. Caregivers often put on a good front, especially in church, because they don’t want to bring others down or make us uncomfortable. That is, when they don’t avoid church altogether. The content of worship, and especially the words or music of particular hymns, has the power to touch places inside us we don’t often touch, places of grief or despair or helplessness, and that can make us cry. And we don’t want that, at least not in public.

I am always amazed when someone apologizes for crying in church. What better place is there to cry? This is where we sing

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love;

We share our mutual woes, our mutual burdens bear.

And often for each other flows the sympathizing tear.

What better place to release our tears, or better yet those groans of the spirit, than here where all the joy and pain of life is welcome so that it can be laid before God? Where better to cry, in all our helplessness and vulnerability, “Precious Lord take my hand,” only to feel someone reach over and actually take our hand to say “you are not alone.” If it doesn’t happen in the pew, there is a prayer minister by each door every Sunday ready to hear your cry and remind you “you are not alone.”

But caregiving comes in other forms, too, and this year I want to lift some of them up.

I think of the G—– family, who were displaced from their home by Superstorm Sandy and taken in by our Presbyterian conference center across the river. When the G—– finally returned to their home, we as a congregation promised to walk with them for a year and to help them in any way we could. Last weekend, to mark the one-year anniversary of the storm, the G—– family and other families who received the hospitality of the conference center and the commitment of congregations like ours came together for an anniversary celebration. Five folks from our church went to spend a joyful afternoon with them and to hear stories of hope and courage. But they also heard stories of persistent problems, unemployment, difficult landlords and continued poverty. In the face of honest need, honestly shared, one of our members said to Mr. G—–, “Well, you’re family now. We’ll find a way.” That’s caregiving. And following through might mean hard work.

Or what might it mean to think of our nation as family and the obligation we have to care for one another through public policy? There is intense pressure in Washington right now to reduce federal programs for low-income people, particularly food stamps and unemployment benefits. House Republicans are currently proposing $10 billion in food stamp cuts over ten years, while House Democrats have proposed a tamer $4 billion. But whatever the outcome, any cuts will come on top of the significant cuts that kicked in on Friday when the increases enacted by the 2009 stimulus law expired. That expiration affects all of the nearly 48 million food stamp recipients and works out to about 16 fewer meals a month for a family of three.[3] Shouldn’t we be putting pressure on our politicians to increase assistance, not reduce it?

I mention this particularly because tomorrow is Veterans Day. As we acknowledge those in our midst who have served our country in the past, did you know that only 9 percent of military veterans are over the age of 60? The majority of our nation’s veterans are under 30, having served extended tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many have families and children. Thousands of these veterans in every state of the union receive food assistance in the form of food stamps, with the numbers in states like Florida and Texas reaching the hundreds of thousands. All cut. That’s not right. These are men and women who have served our nation in times of war and conflict, not to mention to all the men and women receiving food assistance who list their employment status as “active duty military,” and we have a collective obligation of care.

Or I think of the mother who recently said “I can go without food, but my daughter doesn’t understand when she goes hungry, so I buy food for her first and I go without.” Of course she does. If every parent can undertake the obligations and difficulties of care, why can’t we as a nation?

Have we become tired of caring for the common good? Are we in denial of the suffering, angry with those in need, socially withdrawn from our neighbors; have we given up on making a difference? I want to send the Alzheimer’s Association’s list of caregiver stress to every politician in Washington and Westchester, and to every exhausted justice advocate in every local congregation. Because this too is caregiving, and this too is hard work that cannot be done in isolation.

Our scripture today, Psalm 46, declares that

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble;

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change

Though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea.

[though] The nations are in an uproar; [and] the kingdoms totter.

Be still and know that I am God.

Be still and know that I am God.

The Lord of Hosts is with us.

I recently had a conversation with a woman caring for her husband whose Alzheimer’s means that not only does not recognize her, but that he seems to have forgotten “God, Jesus, everything.” To which the only response is, “but God has not forgotten him.”

But I repeat: it is not just the patients or recipients of care, but caregivers themselves who need the comfort and support of the congregation. We are about the sing one of the new hymns in our hymnal. It’s found in the section called “Living and Dying in Christ.” Called “When Memory Fades,” it is a hymn about caregiving amidst Alzheimer’s. After we rehearsed it in Choir Practice on Wednesday, Patty mentioned that she may have found a problem with the new hymnal – some of these hymns evoke such rich images and powerful associations that she, at least, may not be able to sing them; this one in particular. If that is also you, then let us sing for you, let this be a time of prayer for you, a gentle relaxing into the arms of God, and a reminder that you are not alone.

Just be still, and know that God is God. And that is strength enough for today.


[1] Mrs. Rosalynn Carter

[2] The first part of this sermon is derived from resources developed by the Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association for Caregiver Sunday.

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/02/opinion/budget-grief-for-the-poor-and-jobless.html?_r=0

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