Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Caring for the Care-Giver

“Remember, you’re not alone in this.”  Our young assistant pastor was so sincere, leaning down to talk through my lowered car window as I drove onto the church parking lot. And I was so raw.  Tears welled up and spilled down my cheeks.  “Thank you,” I croaked.  As I drove away, I thought, “Nice thought, my friend.  But what are you going to do? What can the church do?”

My 89-year-old mother was in the hospital, again. She had moved up from Texas several months earlier. Daddy had died a year before that. She couldn’t live by herself anymore; she was falling, her macular degeneration was worsening, and she couldn’t manage that rambling ranch-style house. So she had moved into an assisted living apartment here in St. Louis, far away from her church and her few remaining but dear friends.

That was four years ago.  Now Mother is in a skilled nursing facility; she cannot get out of a chair or walk by herself because she is so frail.  My husband and I still see her almost every day. Caring for her also includes taking her to doctor visits, keeping up with her finances, bills, shopping, and personal needs. She is in a nice place with wonderful nursing care. That doesn’t sound like a big deal for me, does it?

But it is.  It is for me and for countless adult children like me, and for as many reasons as there are care-givers.  My personal challenges have been about managing time and emotions.

My time management challenges happened because I tried to keep living the same life I’d been living before Mother moved to St. Louis.  I kept up the same work schedule, which was a non-negotiable.  But I also tried to keep up my volunteer activities, and that was killing me.  I finally had to admit to myself that Mother’s being here must dictate changes, and give myself permission to say that was okay.  My new motto for this year is “Back to Sanity, Baby!” and I’ve been letting those volunteer things go, one by one.  They are things that I love to do, so it is hard.  But a stanza from one of my favorite hymns says, 

I ask thee for the daily strength to none that ask denied,
a mind to blend with outward life, while keeping at thy side,
content to fill a little space, if thou be glorified.

(“Father, I Know That All My Life,” Anna L. Waring, 1850)

My prayer is for that contentment during this time as I fill this little space in caring for my mother.

Managing my emotions is the bigger challenge.  Not that we can actually “manage” them.  They do what they do; we feel what we feel. When Mother first moved here, her deep unhappiness enveloped me like a toxic cloak.  I cried myself to sleep every night because I cannot fix what makes her unhappy.  I cannot bring Daddy back.  She cannot live in Texas with no family within 900 miles.  All the money in the world cannot buy her a new set of legs.

But several things have helped. My husband, foremost of all. He goes with me to see Mother every day that he can. He goes with us to doctor and dentist appointments. He is the voice of reason and sanity when she pushes the buttons from my childhood. And she adores him, so she is on her best behavior when he is present.

Also, as it turns out, the church can help. Our church pastoral staff visited my mother (and, therefore, me) during her hospital stays.  Recently one of them visited her skilled nursing room and offered to serve her communion.  She told me how much she liked “that nice, well-spoken young man.”  A visit like that breaks up an endless, boring day with the light of human interaction. And because it helps her, it helps me.

One of our friends gets unclaimed flowers from funeral homes, re-arranges them, and takes them to shut-ins.  She often brings an arrangement by our house for me to take to Mother, and when she does, she always brings one for me, too.  Mother loves to look at the flowers by her chair, and the flowers in our house shout God’s love to us through my friend.

Other friends have helped by meeting me for coffee or lunch, letting me talk, telling me what has helped in dealing with their own parents, giving me understanding and encouragement, and assuring me I’m not completely crazy or horrible.

With the passing of the years and God’s enabling grace, I’m now able to separate myself emotionally from Mother’s unhappiness while I try, at the same time, to do all I can for her. Part of that is setting limits and not, as my husband says, “letting the inmates run the asylum.” My brother has come from California two years in a row now to house- and mother-sit for us while we take a vacation. (Thank you, brother dear!) I take occasional trips with girlfriends to the mountains and to the beach.

What has been of greatest help to you, if you are the care-giver of an elderly parent?  I would love to know.  When this “little space” has ended, I want to be able to help those who are there, as I am now.


  1. Thanks for this, Mary Beth. It's a great article.

    Some years ago I ran an Adult Bible School class on "Caring for the Caregiver". There is so much that the church can to to minister both to the caregiver and to the one being cared for: Visiting so they don't feel abandoned, praying with and for the people involved, giving respite care from time to time, bringing communion.
    I love the idea of bringing flowers!

    When my husband was dying, I know that people all over the world were praying for me and I felt so sustained. A friend also came by regularly to take me out for a walk or to a museum or to any place out of the house, and I deeply appreciated her ministrations.

    I loved Madeline L'Engle's book "The Summer of the Great-Grandmother" which tells the story of her mother's last summer, when she suffered from dementia, which she spent at Madeline's home, Madeline's coping strategies, self-care, and God's sustaining power.

    1. Thank you so much for these comments, Cora. Especially about the essential place that prayer plays in enabling us to do what God has called us to do. Thank you for the book tip, too--I'm looking forward to reading it!

    2. Thanks so much for the reminder of caring for the caregiver- and that fact that the church and community is so important in this process. I'm figuring that out more and more each day as I see people not so much ministering to a caregiver- but ministering to me at this point. I truly feel sustained by everyone's prayers and support. I pray that that the Lord continues to minister to my family in this way and I hope to be able to minister to others as I feel better and am able.

    3. Oh, Hella, you are already ministering to so many (me!) by the way you are trusting and loving the Lord during this time. I pray that our church will be what you need us (me!) to be for you, and that you will continue to feel God's sustaining strength and comfort. Thank you so much for your reply.