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Feb 24, 2012 | the Rev. Pat Ritchie

Commentary: Called to Care for One Another

As a hospice chaplain I see all kinds of caregiving situations.  I have precious memories of medical professionals tenderly caring for patients.  I’ve been amazed at the caregiving I see from non-professionals.  Naturally I see a lot of spouses caring for one another and children caring for parents.  But it is also not unusual for me to see a nephew caring for a great-aunt or a neighbor caring for another. 


One recent day I walked into a nursing facility room to meet a new patient and I saw a beautiful young woman gently feeding applesauce to the elderly patient.  As we got to know each other, I asked the young woman how she was connected to the patient.


“Oh,” she said, “we are just friends.  I met her two years ago when I came here to visit my grandmother.   She didn’t have any family around here, so I started taking care of her.  I love her.”   The patient looked at her sweetly and said “and I love you.”


Surely, we are all invited to be caregivers in some way, some time.   When we respond to the invitation we learn what a great privilege and joy it is to serve someone in this most basic of ways. 


St. Paul told the Philippians, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”   On the eve of his crucifixion Jesus demonstrated humble service to one another and he said we would be blessed if we followed suit. 


Some caregiving is easy and brings joy to the recipient and pleasure to us.  Things like picking up the neighbor’s newspaper each morning and putting it near their door, transporting a friend to a doctor’s appointment, helping prepare their tax return or doing their grocery shopping.

Sometimes caregiving is much more difficult.  It can be emotionally draining when caring for someone who is confused and strong-willed.  It can be mentally exhausting with many decisions to be made.   Or physically challenging with sleepless nights and little time to take care of our own needs and affairs.   Caregiving is a sacrificial gift and those rarely have an obvious reward.  It is the gift of unconditional love, like the gift that Jesus gave us.


Caregivers need some care themselves.  If you find yourself in the caregiver role, consider keeping a journal.  In her book, Caring For Mother, Virginia Stem Owens says she kept a one and later structured those notes into a narrative “hoping to find some sense that could be made from what often seemed a chaotic welter.”


Try to resist doing it all yourself.  If there are other family members, friends or neighbors willing to pitch in, then circle up and discern what gifts and talents each has to bring to the situation. 


Always, caregivers should take a day off.  Hire a caregiver for one day a week, so you can do some things just for you.  If finances are an issue, ask others to pitch in.  Some low income elderly persons qualify for provider assistance through their insurance.  Schedule in vacations, and if necessary, consider a respite stay in a personal care home or nursing facility for the patient. 


Accept offers of help.  People want to help, let them.  Above all stay connected to your world, your church, your friends.  Use quiet time for phone calls to friends and family.  Let them know your needs, even if it is just a listening ear.  When my mother was ill, one of my brothers who traveled with a busy career called me weekly to check in and always took my calls. 


As a church community we are all caregivers. If we are not in the role ourselves, we can be caring for caregivers by offering help, making calls and visits and always remembering them in our prayers.  It is essential that both the one cared for and the caregiver know that they are not forgotten in their absence from community life.


I have a patient I’ll call Betsy.  She is young and beautiful and has full-blown dementia.  She and her husband were both educators and loved sports.  Betsy was quite the competitive athlete herself.  They planned an early retirement to do some long-awaited traveling.  Before the planned retirement Betsy started getting forgetful and that escalated so quickly that she and her husband, I’ll call him Hank, retired even earlier than planned.  They packed up their home and moved closer to their son, I’ll call him Derek.  They joined a local church and Hank joined both a men’s Bible Study and a men’s breakfast group.  When Betsy could no longer walk, move, feed herself, or talk, with Derek’s input and support Hank moved Betsy to a skilled nursing facility.   That is where I met them.  Hank comes every day to visit Betsy, his wife who now is only 60 years old.  He feeds her a meal and reads her the newspaper, especially the sports.  He shows her pictures of the grandkids and tells her all that is going in their lives.  Sometimes they watch sports on TV and Hank actually gets a response from Betsy.  


I asked Hank how he does it, meaning how do you not fall into despair, feel sorry for yourself, regret the fun retirement years so longed for.  Hank says that every day he gets to come see and serve his beautiful wife he is blessed.  He is buoyed by his trust in God’s constant provision for him and by the support he receives from his church community.  He meets someone for coffee most mornings and he knows that someone who will listen is just a phone call away. 


Jesus was so wise to show us how to wash one another’s feet and just as he said, we are blessed when we do.