"Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2).
Few individuals can regularly attend church without hearing the apostle Paul's mandate regarding one another's burden, but it is often difficult to know how to carry out that mandate in the multitude of challenges facing Christians in today's world.
One of the more challenging issues facing so many is to serve as a family caregiver for a chronically ill, disabled or elderly loved one. The church has a lengthy record of ministry regarding short-term issues and stricken individuals. Yet, when a malady or condition extends into months, years and even decades, many clergy and laypersons alike find themselves at a loss on what "bearing one another's burdens" looks like, and how to effectively minister to those who daily put themselves between a vulnerable loved one and disaster.
In the South, I often laugh when saying, "Whenever two or three are gathered, you will find 'macaroni and cheese,'" but 30 years of experience as a caregiver has effectively demonstrated that "bringing meals are helpful, but eventually someone has to learn to cook." The same principle applies with finances. A financial gift from the mercy ministry is helpful, but eventually someone needs to work and learn how to manage money.
For long-term caregivers of vulnerable loved ones, I see five major areas where the church is well-equipped to help and contribute not only to the spiritual well-being of the caregiver, but the physical, fiscal, emotional and even professional health of the caregiver—all with no or minimal budget impact.
1. Meals. Bringing dinners is hugely helpful for a short-term issue, but instead of signing up to bring a fully prepared meal (and risk being late, someone forgetting and so on), a church can coordinate volunteers who will simply grocery shop. Many grocery stores will do the shopping for individuals, and church members can easily swing by, pick up the groceries and deliver them to the caregiver's home.
Caregivers lose their independence, and while it's important for them to get out and have some downtime, regular trips to the grocery store can be a challenge. Just handling the logistics (not even the actual purchases) of shopping offers much needed hours that can be better used to care for a loved one or even take a break and get some rest. Other useful things can be something as simple as, "Hey, I'm at the grocery store—can I pick up a gallon of milk or something for you?" It may sound like a small thing, but it can be a huge help to a caregiver juggling a variety of tasks who feels overwhelmed at the thought of leaving a loved one, fighting traffic and spending time at the market.
2. Finances. Many caregivers find themselves in the uncomfortable role of managing someone else's finances. Budgets, long-term planning, filing taxes, medical bills and other financial matters can pile up on a caregiver quickly. Virtually every church has financial professionals as members who could provide much needed counsel for that family with a special needs child, the spouse taking over the finances when their husband/wife becomes impaired or adult children caring for an aging parent. If the family cannot afford the services of a CPA or similar professional, then the church can offer to subsidize those fees from the mercy ministry. Sending a service, not a check, is a better path towards a sustainable infrastructure for the caregiver.
3. Home maintenance. "If Mom's watching Dad, 'Who's watching the water heater?'" Just like the caregiver's physical health, the state of the house can also show wear and tear. Cleaning gutters, lawn care, weeding, minor repairs, even building a wheelchair ramp are helpful ways a local church can effectively serve their members, and even non-members who are in the community. All of these projects can incorporate the youth program of the church and offer an invaluable minister opportunity to young people.
4. Respite. Churches can schedule respite moments for the caregivers to attend to personal issues such as support groups, counseling, classes for professional development and doctor visits for themselves. When skilled care or more professional home-health workers are required for these isolated events, then the mercy ministry can contract with local businesses (and even work out a reduced-costs agreement) to provide these services to the caregiver. That way, the caregiver can feel comfortable with the person staying with their loved one, and the church can be assured that professional services are delivered.
5. Safety. With an alarming number of patients suffering from Alzheimer's as well as other forms of dementia and impairments, an overlooked fact is that many of them are gun owners. If the caregiver is inexperienced around firearms, the weapons may be left within reach of someone who is impaired. Church members who are experienced and trained with handling firearms (particularly law enforcement) can offer their services to pastors and become an important resource for securing weapons in the home. This allows the caregivers to protect their loved ones better from horrific accidents, and themselves from being victimized by an impaired loved one.
These five areas of ministry provide churches with tools and strategies for bearing the burdens of the family caregiver. It offers a unique way of communicating love and compassion, and more importantly, the gospel of Jesus Christ to individuals who are daily laying down their lives for another.
Peter Rosenberger is the founder of Caregivers With Hope. For the past 30 years, as a radio host, author, speaker, accomplished pianist and black belt in Hapkido, Peter has personally traveled the path of the family caregiver. In the process, he has learned that a caregiver cannot only survive but thrive in the midst of oftentimes grim circumstances. In an unparalleled journey with his wife, Gracie, he has navigated a medical nightmare that has mushroomed to 78 operations, the amputation of both of Gracie's legs, treatment by more than 60 doctors in 12 hospitals, 7 medical insurance companies, and $9 million in medical bills. Peter is the author of Hope for the Caregiver, which released in 2014 from Worthy Inspired. Visit his website at CaregiversWithHope.com
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