This month in Bearings Online we will tackle the subject of caregiving—its growing prevalence, reasons for this growth, and the role of the church. We’ll also hear stories from those who provide care to sick and elderly people about how their faith, calling, and relationships are influenced by and influence their role as a caregiver.
A 2013 Pew Research report on family caregivers noted that 39 percent of adult Americans are caregivers for an adult or child with serious health problems. This number—a percentage that grows annually—will only rise with the aging of the Baby Boomer generation.
Those who provide care to sick and elderly people face a mountain of diverse challenges. Caregiving involves physical care—help with getting dressed, grooming, and getting around. No less important, it also involves logistical care—help with daily details such as shopping, taking medicines, making appointments, and organizing finances. The financial, physical, emotional, and time demands placed on caregivers are also part of the package, and are frequently overwhelming and debilitating. Caregivers walk alongside their loved ones through the medical maze of endless consultations, treatments, and paperwork. They must filter competing medical advice and assessment, and often they are asked to do so as they are watching their loved ones struggle and suffer. Like those for whom they care, many are afraid.
The financial strain on middle-aged adults, to whom much of this caregiving falls, is growing. Among today’s Baby Boomer generation, 6 in 10 say they may need to postpone their retirement due to finances, and at the same time, about a quarter of Baby Boomers are providing financial and/or emotional and personal support to a parent. As this Boomer generation ages, many of them are finding that they are not financially prepared to take care of themselves; they will increasingly rely on government support to provide for their living and medical expenses.
An additional financial strain on those approaching retirement age, and who may be caring for the sick and elderly, is the skyrocketing cost of medical care in the United States—especially at the end of life. A 2005 Hastings Center special report on improving end-of-life care noted that for those alive at age 85, one-third of lifetime health costs are still ahead. Medical costs are especially disproportionate in the final year of life. According to a Wall Street Journal article on the costs of healthcare, in 2009, the 6.6 percent of hospital patients who died while in the hospital accounted for 22.3 percent of total hospital expenditures.
The safety net of Social Security and Medicare is not able to care for all those who qualify for its programs. According to a 2014 report by Pew Research, 10,000 Baby Boomers will be going on Social Security and Medicare every single day between now and 2030, and the cost of the United States government’s programs for seniors will soon exceed half of the federal budget. As the number of beneficiaries grows, these programs will quickly become unsustainable. The numbers don’t add up.
In a climate where public assistance is not available or not enough, unpaid family caregivers, when available, help make up the difference. This model is also unsustainable, however, without a supportive community surrounding these caregivers.
Caregiving requires a stamina, fortitude, and clarity of mind demanded by few other life situations. The experience of being the primary caregiver for a loved one—a parent, spouse, child or other relative—can involve high levels of stress, anxiety, guilt, and, ultimately, burnout. Surrounded by uncertainties and difficult decisions regarding care for the elderly and gravely ill, patients and their caregivers often feel lonely, confused, and afraid. Spiritual questions of isolation, despair, and suffering may leave the caregiver feeling frustrated or even forsaken by God and their former communities of support. This is where the church can step in.
What should be the church’s response to the immense and growing challenge of caregiving? And why should the church care about caregiving in the first place? Because the stakes are so high, for one. And because very few, if any, other social institutions are as well placed to face the challenges of providing care for caregivers.
As medical institutions, political systems, and even neighborhoods and communities struggle to support those who are caring for the sick and elderly, religious communities are particularly well poised to serve as “first responders.” In addition to bolstering caregivers’ hope and courage, these communities can provide basic information to help navigate today’s complicated health care system, thus enabling patients and families to make good choices during an exceedingly stressful time.
Religious traditions also have a unique and crucial role to play in helping people wrestle with what it means to be human, including what it means to live well and die well. Enduring religious traditions help people situate their lives within the greater story of existence, and at their best, they are sources of comfort, meaning, and hope.
The church is well suited then, to walk alongside caregivers, reminding them in all sorts of ways that they are not alone in their labors. As hospital chaplain Karen Hanson says, “The gift of accompaniment is the essence of the incarnation. ‘I fear no evil, for Thou art with me.’ Perfect love casts out fear in the act of walking with one another at birth, through life, and at life’s end.”
Simply put, caregivers can love their loved ones better when churches support caregivers. Though these words are easy to type on a keyboard, the task of providing this support is anything but easy. It requires sacrifices, or gifts, of time, physical and emotional energy, and financial resources. And whether the church is up to the challenge—well, that’s another question altogether.