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Caring for the caregiver: offer relief and alternatives

SUMMARY: Unpaid caregivers make up the largest source of long-term care services in the U.S.—34 million people or 16 percent of the adult population helps care for an adult 50 or older. 

Caregivers can feel alone. They cannot run to the store or take a short walk unless someone is there to stay with the care receiver. Even families with paid caregivers often find themselves without assistance on weekends. Your church can reach this dedicated group by supporting them and offering worship experiences at times they can attend.

Start a caregiver support group at your church. Invite church members and people from the community. See if a trained professional will volunteer his or her time. If that's not possible, perhaps a Stephen Minister or someone who has been through the care-giving experience could lead the group. Determine a meeting schedule that fits both the need and the time available from participants and leaders. Publicize the support group on neighborhood message boards, in older-adult centers and let local companies that provide caregivers know about your support group.

Caregivers need a break. Their caregiver role is always top of mind, a responsibility they confront every time they walk in the door. They may not ask for help, but they may accept help when offered. Ask for volunteers from your church who would give a few hours a week or a month to sit with the care receiver while the caregiver shops, run errands, goes to the library or attends a support group. Volunteers could also allow the caregiver to take a break to stay at home for a bit, do other projects or even take a nap. Respite volunteers may drop off a meal or run an errand for the caregiver, especially in situations where the care receiver might not be comfortable being alone with a volunteer.

Select a respite team leader to be the liaison between the caregivers and the team members. Offer caregivers a phone number or an e-mail address to contact for assistance. Then match them with team members who are available and willing. Some training could help respite volunteers be more comfortable providing assistance. 

Offer classes to help caregivers learn to balance their care-giving responsibilities and their personal well-being. The more they know, the less overwhelming care giving may seem. Workshops could include communicating with someone experiencing dementia, having a meaningful visit with your loved one, setting realistic expectations, taking on nursing responsibilities, creating a family/friend support system, involving young children, and relieving stress and frustration. Participants also should suggest topics to meet their specific needs.

Help caregivers learn that communicating with someone suffering dementia is different because the person's brain betrays chronological age and life experience. This WebMd article offers some great communication tips. For example, people who suffer dementia may think of themselves as children and ask about their parents. If you tell them their parents have died, they will mourn the loss as if it were the first time—every time they ask the question. Caregivers might say something like, "Your parents love you and are in a good place." Connect with people suffering dementia by playing simple games popular in their youth—a time many still remember well. 

Powerful Tools for Caregivers is a self-care education program for family caregivers. This 6-week scripted curriculum provides you with tools and strategies to better handle the many unique caregiver challenges you face.

Alternative worship
Sunday is the traditional day for worship, yet many unpaid caregivers cannot leave their loved ones at home. They miss out on the spiritual nurture and fellowship. Consider offering a worship service for caregivers once a month (weekly, if possible) at an alternate time. Host the service during the day when professional assistance or your respite team members may be available to care for their loved ones at home. Involve other members of your congregation who are available in the service. Caregivers will feel the support of the non-caregivers and be able to connect with them as well.

The important thing is to talk about how your church is helping caregivers. This population needs and deserves the support and ministry of the church. It is also a population that will grow rapidly in the next 20 years.

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