A recent study by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP found that 44.4 million Americans age 18 or older are providing unpaid care to an adult. Nearly 90% of these caregivers are helping relatives.
Which, from a Catholic standpoint, is a good thing — or can be. Caregivers usually fulfill multiple roles. Well over half are married. Close to three-quarters work. This juggling can lead to stress and conflicts.
One woman told me she felt neglected by her husband, who spent much of his time caring for his elderly parents. He had to balance his sacramental commitment to his wife with his respect for his parents, who also deserved his time.
“Respect for parents (filial piety),” the Catechism reminds us, “derives from gratitude toward those who, by the gift of life, their love and their work, have brought their children into the world and enabled them to grow in stature, wisdom and grace” (No. 2215).
“With all your heart honor your father, and do not forget the birth pangs of your mother,” adds the Book of Sirach (7:27-28). “Remember that through your parents you were born; what can you give back to them that equals their gift to you?”
It is not surprising that caregivers say that their most pressing unmet needs are finding time for themselves, managing emotional and physical stress, and balancing work and family responsibilities. The study found that one-third of caregivers feel they need help keeping the person they care for safe. And around 20% need help talking with doctors and other healthcare professionals.
In short, burnout is a real risk for familial (and other volunteer) caregivers. Oftentimes, a little help around the house or a break from caregiving is all that’s needed to keep stress at manageable levels.
Sometimes family members, friends or neighbors are able to help. If you know of someone in this situation, consider lending a hand. Many caregivers do most or all of the caregiving alone. If you are one of them, you might do well to look into the Eldercare Locator (eldercare.gov, or call 800-677-1116) or your local Catholic Charities office (catholiccharitiesusa.org). Know that help is available.
When you’re dealing with elderly parents, things can get complicated. I remember one elderly woman telling me she stayed in her room all day at her son’s house because she didn’t want to “get in the way.” On the other hand, some elderly parents can’t resist the opportunities to “parent” their grown children, their grandchildren — or whomever else spends time in their physical space. Naturally, in such situations, tensions often arise.
Then there is the struggle for the elderly parent to maintain some modicum of independence, not to mention the loneliness and isolation that an elder parent can feel when left alone for long periods of time.
Surely it wasn’t an arbitrary afterthought when Jesus, near death, thought about — and saw to — his mother’s future.
“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home” (John 19:25-27).
Perhaps caregivers should turn to St. John the Apostle, asking for his intercession as they strive to do their best in this most important act of duty and love.
Brother John Raymond is co-founder of the Community of the Monks of Adoration in Venice, Florida.