Let’s talk about what I think may be the most important “labor” in the world—caregiving, whether paid or volunteer. a labor of love!
Did you know:
- 70% of us will need care—most of us will be caregivers AND receivers!
- 80% of nursing home care goes on in family homes;
It is a 35 hour per week job for conditions like Alzheimer’s, and that job can last 15 or more years. That is a huge personal responsibility—even a burden at times for most;
Care giving imposes tens of thousands of dollars in unexpected personal expense for each of us, on average;
Care-giving costs Americans over 4350 billion in specialized programs and tax benefits. That number pales in comparison to the $450 billion — out of pocket expenses for family caregivers and family members.
Yet, God expects us to be caregivers. Even on the cross, Jesus asked the Apostle John to provide for Mary, his mother.
Let me give you some Biblical background Aging is part of the God-given life cycle. It has a fulfilling purpose in life, or God would have designed our lives differently. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
I believe that aging is God’s way of reminding us we are dependent upon Him.
So, what does God expect of us as we age? What does He promise us through the process? What is expected of neighbors, family, and the church as we struggle to care for each other?
First, God still expects us to be productive regardless of age. He commands us to “bear fruit” even if our tree is old. The archetypes of productive aging are Abraham and Sarah. You recall (and forgive the casual explanation) God asked them late in life to be Father and Mother of many nations. Sarah laughed. God asked: “What’s so funny?” Sarah said: “We are too old for that.” God said, “I didn’t ask you how old you are. I asked you to do a big job.” They did. The rest is literally history. What was their reward? They died a “good old age,” and “full of years.” At death, they were “gathered to their people.” This is a promise we can all hold onto as we face death if we have been faithful and we have been fruitful.
God not only promises us a “good old age” but that aging generates wisdom. As we age with gather “splendor” which is reflected in our gray or white hair. We are commanded to “honor our father and mother.” In Corinthians, we are promised that even as our body withers, our soul can grow. “Though the outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.”
The Bible does not minimize the challenges of frailty. As the psalmist implored, “Cast me not off in the time of old age. Forsake me not when my strength fails.” We have the answer to that plea in Isaiah: “I will carry and I will save . . . . I have made and I will bear.” God promises us honor, wisdom, renewal, splendor, and support.
So, how do we honor our fathers and mothers as they age? Today, the major way we honor our fathers and mothers is through care-giving.
But caregiving is hard. It is exhausting. It can be unappreciated. Some of you may be in the “sandwich generation”—providing care to both the younger AND the older generation. Daughters or daughters-in-law are often responsible for either providing direct care or coordinating the care-givers who provide direct care. While caregiving has its rewards—stars in these women’s crowns, as I tell them,–the duties they undertake can make them lightning rods for family and friends who don’t want to take on the responsibility themselves, but who criticize the caregiver who has accepted the burden.
I pulled up behind a van one day. A thirty-something woman was at the wheel, a grandmother was in the passenger seat, and there were two children in car seats. A wheelchair was took up the cargo space. On the van was a bumper sticker that read: “Heaven doesn’t want me and hell’s afraid I’ll take it over.” These are the sentiments of many women playing this essential family role. Men are doing better in our society about care-giving, but the bulk of the burden still falls on women.
Sometimes we hear that Americans neglect their elderly, just abandoning them in nursing homes. The truth is we DO care for our own, and often at great sacrifice. There are exemplars in this very church.
How important are caregivers? One aging guru named Dr. Bill Thomas asked the question, “What Are Old People For?” He answers that the human race dominates the planet because older women—grandmothers—have a God-given natural purpose to help raise grandkids to ensure the survival of the human race. That’s why these women live longer than men. They have a special purpose. In parts of Africa today, the parent generations have been wiped out by HIV-AIDS, leaving children dependent on their grandmothers. In our own country, 300,000 minor children are acting as the primary caregiver to their grandparents.
Study after study ranks the job of care-giver as one of the toughest—many demands, not much money, and few opportunities for professional advancement. I have made presentations in hundreds of non-profit board rooms and I ask when was the last time aboard held one of its meetings on a weekend or during a night shift in order to stay in touch with the most important employees in their organization. As yet, no hands have gone up. The most trusted person in their caregiving organization is the nurse’s aide on their dementia or memory care unit between Saturday night and Sunday morning. Pay attention to these angels of mercy!
Yet the bulk of caregiving is through family and friends. They need support, like the Elderly Relative Support Group in this church that for over thirty years has assured caregivers they are not alone, that there are others who can listen to them—without judgment because they have been there themselves.
God knows the valuable role that daughters-in-law play. In the book of Ruth, it says: “For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons.”
Vernon Jordan tells the story of his late mother, Mary B. Jordan, one of the most successful African American businesswomen in Atlanta history. Vernon and his first wife were rising stars in civil rights, politics, and business—until his wife contracted MS. At that time, there were few effective treatments and little hope for a normal life. Vernon visited his mother to tell her about this development and to lament the implications it had for their lives. His mother listened. When Vernon finished his tale of woe, Mrs. Jordan simply responded: “Vernon Junior, the Lawd don’t give you no burden He won’t help you tote. Now that’s your burden, tote it!”
“Yes, ma’am,” And tote it he did!
What is involved in caregiving? Many of you know. Others may not. It has a broad scope of responsibility. Care-giving can e checking in regularly by phone or with a visit, or by given direct personal care, like helping someone bathe. A high-profile board member of my former organization, Wesley Woods, made regular visits to his still independent 90-year-old mother in Blairsville to keep an eye on the situation without intruding. She was a dyed in the wool tee-totaling Methodist. She commented she had seen his picture in the Atlanta paper. He was wearing a tuxedo and holding a glass of wine. She said he looked handsome but then asked him if he had been drinking at the event. He tried to evade the issue by replying: “Well, Mama, Jesus himself drank wine and turned water into wine at the wedding feast.” To which she responded, “Yeah, but I would have thought better of him if he hadn’t!”
Staying in touch by a regular visit or scheduled phone call seems so simple, yet so very important. With the internet, social media, and the I-phone, children, and grandchildren can connect on a regular basis. Recently, I received a call from a friend. Her father-in-law has gone missing, and a gun in his collection went with him. Neighbors told the police that the father was close to his eldest son. However, they haven’t spoken in 19 years. There are good reasons for this estrangement, though the emotional fallout if and when the father is found is a time bomb with a long fuse.
On the other end of the caregiving, spectrum are examples from our own church, now gone to their heavenly reward. Frances Flint and Amy Humphrey took care of their mothers in their homes, mothers who required 24/7 care. Amy’s mother was ungrateful and difficult. Amy wondered until the day she died whether she could have done better by this difficult person. We assured her she had done her best. Frances’ mother was sweet and kind, accepting her daughter’s help with gratitude. Both women “toted” similar burdens with very different rewards, but tote they did.
While we have an individual duty to our own families and neighbors, we also have a collective duty to the “least and the lost” among us, including aged veterans, orphans, and the homeless. Yes, there are dozens of government programs to support us all as we age or experience challenges, but they are not well coordinated. Some are underfunded and have long waiting lists. A friend in Washington took care of her mother at home despite a challenging job. While both she and her husband were at work, the mother had a heat stroke which resulted in three hospital admissions and ultimately In her death. Three days later after her mother passed, the daughter was notified by county services that her mother had moved up on the waiting list for meals on wheels to number 144.
Government is only a partial answer to the rising need for care-giving. I firmly believe that faith-based organizations are the only groups that can knit the safety net and connect services for people in need. Only the faith-based organization can keep people engaged, fed, transported, recovering, housed, and safe, all while ministering to their spiritual needs
Our community here in Decatur, with leadership from this church over the years, has created and sustained programs for people in need: DEEM, Breakthrough House, ASP, Wesley Woods, The Children’s Home, and international outreaches like HOI and Global Health.
Yet, the first pledge campaign I was a solicitor for in this church took me only three blocks away to two sisters, one of whom had been unable to get off the second floor of their home for years. Another elder who was a member of one of the largest and best-resourced churches in our city told me, when I asked her if she still attended church activities, replied in a very sad tone, “No, I can’t drive anymore, and my church only knows if I’m dead or alive at pledge time.”
I have long believed that churches and synagogues are the most accessible, most caring, and least expensive resource available to any human being in America—indeed, perhaps the world. But what gets cut first when budgets get tight? Missions.
So, Decatur First, we too have 4 duties in caregiving:
- Make sure no one is forgotten, relegated to the second floor of life.
- Make sure friends and families are supported in their caregiving duties. We must help the care-giver tote their burdens.
- Help with the orchestration of services, both public and private—in every community.
- Innovate in care-giving; use technology, support programs like the Parish nurse, enable people to connect to local health systems
John Wesley declared, “the world is our parish.” I believe our most sacred and fundamental duty is the Hallowed Ground of Caregiving! Our society’s health depends on it.