My dad has now joined tens of millions of Americans as a caregiver. Mom had a stroke and returned home recently, working hard to regain use of her left side. I was able to join them for that first week home and experienced firsthand the wonderful burden of caregiving.
I would venture to guess you have caregivers like my dad in your church who tirelessly devote their time and energy toward caring for a child, spouse, or parent. Some are short-term, and others can last decades. But all are motivated by love for the care recipient.
Many churches already support caregivers—with prayer and visits, welcoming them when they can participate in the life of the church and trying to bring church to them when they cannot. This week I want to look at some of the research around caregiving—an expansive field looking at numerous dimensions of delivering and receiving care—and challenge you and your church to think about ways this research can strengthen your ministry to those giving and receiving care.
What We Know About Caregivers
While a 2014 study showed that 83% of caregivers find the experience to be positive, researchers have also identified how it can negatively impact physical and emotional health. And then there are financial stresses, the challenges of navigating the wide array of health care options, and the toll care can take on family and community. This is the double-edged reality of caregiving. It is wonderful to care for a loved one—in my case, the one who once cared so lovingly for me—but it can also be a burden.
Part of the reason the research shows such varied results is that there are many dimensions to caregiving. Some research focuses on the caregiver and others on the care recipient. Some research looks at physical and emotional health and others look at the various needs and support systems (medical, social, financial). And then there is the great variety of specific conditions—caring for a child with Down’s Syndrome is different from a 90-year-old with dementia, which is different from my mom’s stroke.
The average caregiver looks quite unlike my dad. The majority are women, and the average age is 49. Often, caregivers also work, have kids (or grandkids) of their own, and are struggling financially. Estimates suggest that at least 20 million, and perhaps as many as 65 million, American adults provide care for another person. As many as one in three households include a caregiver.
The services these caregivers provide are significant. They average amount of care is about 20 hours per week. Economists estimate the value of that care at $300-$450 billion dollars, which is more than the amount spent on homecare and nursing home services combined. Two-thirds of caregivers also juggle care with employment, with the vast majority of those workers needing to change their work situation (reduced hours, change schedule, change job, or quit). In total, caregiving families have median incomes that are 15% lower than non-caregiving families, and women caregivers are 2.5 times more likely than non-caregivers to live in poverty.
What is the impact on caregivers’ health? About 1 in 5 indicate poor health. Caregiving has been shown to lead to higher levels of stress and depression as well as reduced immune system functioning. One major study showed that high-stress family caregiving can reduce a caregiver’s life span by as much as 10 years, but that finding is contested by other studies.
Not surprisingly, faith factors into caregiving. High levels of spirituality and religiosity tend to correlate with improved conditions both for the care-recipient and caregiver. This is largely due to the way faith correlates with lower levels of depression and anxiety and offers beneficial coping mechanisms. It also enriches the connection between the giver and recipient, which makes the experience more positive for both.
The big concern around caregiving is its future. The American population (and its churches) are aging. The health care system cannot assume the burden family caregivers carry. Can more spouses, like my dad, and more children, like my sister and me, meet the increasing needs?
Here is a recent article describing the situation of caregivers in America.
A recent CDC study looks at the poor health of caregivers.
The American Psychological Association has a comprehensive Caregivers Briefcase that summarizes research, provides relevant facts, and offers resources.
This study suggests mom’s faith will be a boost to both of my parents.
Here is how one church is supporting dementia care-givers.
How can you help caregivers care for themselves? Here is a helpful list.
This healthcare provider created a bulletin insert focused on caregivers.
Caring for the Invisible Second Patient
How can the church help caregivers? Here are a few ideas:
...Don’t forget the caregivers. Sometimes referred to as the “invisible second patient,” their needs are often downplayed as most of the focus is on the care recipient. The reality is both need prayer and support. Please maintain those pastoral visits, but also acknowledge both in corporate worship and community prayers.
...Build a community (or, at least, a rolodex) of support. Trying to manage the care, prepare and watch over the household, cover the expenses, and navigate change as the care recipient’s conditions change, is challenge enough. If the church can connect caregivers to experienced guides—a neighbor that worked in home health care helped Dad—it would be an enormous help.
...Give caregivers respite. If your church has individuals with some experience in providing care, they can do wonders providing the regular caregiver with even an hour or two of sabbath. Dad would love a free Saturday morning to visit the farmer’s market or to putter in the yard.
...Provide social support. The demands on the time of caregivers can make it hard to sustain friendships, community, and other forms of social support. If we can do church virtually in a pandemic, we can find ways to provide community for caregivers.
[For more ideas, read about this church’s remarkable ministry supporting caregivers.]
Fortunately, my mom’s situation may be short-lived. She progresses day-by-day. Ten days after her return home, she took some steps with the support of a therapist, and she is already arm-wrestling Dad with her weak arm. But not every caregiver has the hope of recovery as motivation.
I pray that as we both hear and do God’s word—to honor our fathers and mothers, to care for and visit the sick, to respect our elders, and to attend to the widow—we make visible the caregivers like Dad, who go above and beyond in showing God’s love to persons in need.
Drew Rick-Miller is Project Co-director of Science for the Church and the lead editor of the weekly email. In addition to leading this project, he does freelance work on a range of projects including Science for Seminaries, Orbiter magazine, and programs at the Fuller Youth Institute and Biola University. Previously, he spent more than ten years with the John Templeton Foundation, most recently leading the Religious Engagement Department, where he developed programs helping religious leaders and media engage scientific content. Drew studied literature and physics at Northwestern University before attending Princeton Theological Seminary (M.Div.). Drew’s vocational passion is to help the church navigate the faith and science interface. Drew lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with his wife, a Presbyterian pastor, and their three daughters. He still proudly dons purple and cheers on his Northwestern Wildcats.
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Strengthening the church through engaging with science
We believe that churches are strengthened by engaging with science. Science for the Church looks to a day when science accompanies Scripture as a tool for discipleship, catalyzes expressions of worship, illustrates sermons, elucidates biblical teachings, and supplements theological wisdom for the life of the world. We even wonder if wrestling with science might draw some of the “nones” (those who affiliate with no religion) and the “dones” (those who have left the church) to Christian communities once again.