The Caregiving Boom Needs Spiritual Support…… | News & Reporting

Shanoah Bruner is among the quarter of American adults who find themselves in the “sandwich generation,” raising children under 18 and supporting aging parents.

At her home in the Indianapolis suburbs, the 40-something mom lives with her husband, tween and teen daughters, mother-in-law, and biological father.

The caretaking role comes naturally to Bruner. She was raised in a family that regularly opened their home to others and served their church and community. Plus, she worked in assisted living, memory care, and skilled nursing for over 20 years.

“I grew up in a very Christian home where, you know, people meant more than possessions,” she said. “So that’s just how I look at it, and it’s definitely rewarding for me, though that’s not the case for everybody.”

As baby boomers descend into their twilight years, their kids are taking them in or helping manage care from afar. Sixty-six percent of caregivers are women like Bruner, most of them in their mid-to-late 40s, who also work outside the home.

The demanding needs of caregivers and their loved ones offer believers a chance to provide support and gospel hope. Churches, nonprofits, and government and parachurch organizations have resources, and individual Christians can provide personal, tangible love in action.

In 2022, the first Bible study specifically for dementia caregivers was published. Some churches are implementing caregiver workshops. The Caregiving Support Network hosts a program to “sponsor a caregiver,” and there’s even a dedicated “Caregiver’s Prayer.”

Richard Gentzler Jr., an expert in ministry for aging adults, paraphrased former First Lady Rosalynn Carter when he wrote that there are only four kinds of people in the world: those who have been caregivers, are currently caregivers, will be caregivers, or will need caregivers. In other words, no Christian is exempt from participating in care for the caregiver.

“I do think there’s a lot of opportunity for the church to minister to the emotional needs of this community, which could just be somebody to talk to,” said Bruner. “Someone to just listen, because there’s a lot of emotions when you’re taking care of a parent.”

Most caregivers are adult children, but sometimes, an aging spouse or a distant relative is thrust into the position. Stress and overwhelm characterize the life of a caregiver as they frequently juggle work, parenting, and the job of taxi driver for multiple weekly doctor’s appointments. They’re also babysitters for in-home care or around-the-clock check-ins at senior facilities.

“The statistics show that caregivers have a higher rate of mental illness and depression than even the loved ones they’re caring for,” said Lauren Guynn, executive director of the Shepherd’s Center, a nonprofit organization for independent seniors in Hamilton County, Indiana. “They have a higher rate of physical health problems … and they’re dying sooner.”

Multiple factors result in worsening caregiver health, including lower income, sole provision, co-residence, intensity of health problems, and race. African American and Latino caregivers are more likely to report declining health. Those caring for parents with Alzheimer’s disease report the highest stress levels.

Sole caregivers without assistance fare the worst, and the higher the level of need, Guynn said, the more “caregiver burnout, stress, and health issues.”

Studies show that religious values do contribute to the demographics of caregivers. Guynn’s Christian faith certainly guides her work at the Shepherd’s Center, where she directs programs aiding caregivers and seniors, offering counseling, transportation, visitation, yard work, social activities, and guardianship services.

“It’s taking action,” she said. “If we all made an effort to help the people we see caregiving, I’m guessing it would not only impact their lives but, from a kingdom perspective, the impact would also be huge.”

This work is vital, especially because, as Guynn said, many seniors struggle most due to poor caregiver support. The cost of care is a primary issue.

Getting old is expensive, with full-time memory care facilities charging an average of $7,000 a month. Medicaid doesn’t cover room and board, though it can help with other necessary support services like grooming, bathing, and medication management.

Because of the expenses, many families have no choice but to become full-time caregivers in their homes, while others offer care to relatives who live on their own or in institutional care.

Bruner didn’t grow up with her dad, instead living with her aunt, who ran a food pantry, and uncle, who served as a chaplain at the local jail. It’s their legacy of Christian service and sacrifice that inspired her to care for her biological father as he ages.

Bruner’s father requires regular appointments with an Alzheimer’s specialist, a neurologist, a urologist, a podiatrist, and a brain and spine doctor. Maintaining his care and appointments is a full-time job that Bruner and her husband prayerfully weighed before agreeing to it. She feels lucky to have the means to hire outside help, because many others cannot.

During her work in professional senior care, Bruner said she witnessed adult children who were bitter about caregiving responsibilities for neglectful parents. Because of this mentality and the heavy burden of caregiving, elder abuse is quite high.

For Bruner, caring for the father who did not raise her is “sort of like a restoration.” Though she views her role as a ministry, she said it would be nice to have more supportive programs for caregivers from the church.

Even without dedicated senior support programs, Guynn believes local churches are “uniquely qualified” to offer support for caregivers.

“They just need to feel like they’re not alone,” said Guynn. “And I feel like the church has an opportunity to reach people who I think the devil is isolating.”

Guynn finds that caregivers resist support from organizations but have a level of built-in trust with churches. She said that smaller churches are doing some of the best work in this area.

“These churches may have only 100 people, but every single person there knows each other,” she said. “When someone has surgery, they bring meals, and they know if someone needs help going to the doctor. … It’s a sense of community that comes with a small church that naturally lends more support to caregivers.”

This kind of ministry still often falls to parachurch organizations, which can raise money to offset costs and implement specific programs to help.

The Caregiving Support Network, launched in 2022, offers financial assistance to unpaid caregivers through an application process. Rebecca Dowhy founded the organization after years of caring for her mother, who suffered from multiple sclerosis.

“My physical, mental, and spiritual health suffered tremendously in seasons of burnout and depression,” she wrote. “The relentless nature of disability forced us to continually pour from an empty cup with no way to recharge our energy.”

Churches may hold fellowship nights or events specifically for caregivers to gather. In Dothan, Alabama, the Respite Care Ministry team at First United Methodist Church launched Rosemary House, a place for refreshment for memory loss caregivers.

“Sometimes, caregivers just need someone to listen to them,” said ministry director Katie Holland. “We just want to have a haven for them where they can come get support, education, and training.”

The American Heart Association is one of many organizations that pushes caregivers to consider their well-being even as they support their loved ones. In one resource, they remind caregivers of their right to care for their health, accept help, utilize community resources, express emotions, and tend to other parts of their life.

The Family Caregiver Alliance helps caregivers find outside support, including things like care management, transportation assistance, support groups, legal and financial counseling, respite care, adult daycare options, and more.

Gospel Hope for Caregivers, a ministry created by Marissa Bondurant, encourages people to see caregiving primarily as a ministry. After caring for her (now healthy) young daughter with cancer, Bondurant identified a gap in support for Christian caregivers.

“As I started writing about our experience—about some of the things that were challenging, and the ways that God provided for us—our story started resonating with both ends of that caregiving spectrum,” said Bondurant, who went from posting on CaringBridge to a public site.

“A lot of it had to do with the theology of suffering. I think people needed to hear something that was really going to address the questions they had in their heart and wasn’t going to just be this Band-Aid the church sometimes puts on with a little happy-face sticker.”

Bruner pointed out that churches already have people dedicated to praying for and supporting those with other issues, like poverty, single parenthood, addiction, and divorce. She said showing up for caregivers in the same way would “be like a light” in the darkness.

Those familiar with the caregiving space say proactive, tangible support brought directly to the home is the optimal way for others to help, because many caregivers will never ask for or accept help. They say to just show up, bring food, do their yard work, bring Bible study to them, or offer to sit with their parents so they can run errands.

“In those really dark and difficult situations, having someone to offer spiritual guidance can help them see grace and find healing,” said Guynn. “This is going to help them start to see that God can turn these situations into good and figure out how they can really allow him to work in their lives.”

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