For many, rounding that last corner toward one’s apartment or home after a day of work brings a sigh of relief. Particularly in autumn, when sunlight hours are short, the contrast between a day of work and end-of-day respite heightens. One steps out of the evening’s darkness into the lighted welcome of home. Unless your home is your work. For family caregivers, the valence of work and home are reversed. Home is a place of work rather than rest.
Among these home-workers, many are family members who are responsible for the care of a loved one: a spouse with a disability, an aging parent, an adult child with special needs. One in 10 Americans provides care to a family member who is an adult. Their labor includes everything from emotional support to physical and medical support. They are the family members who know which prescriptions need to be filled. They know the station to which the television should be set. They open mail and read letters. They make arrangements for programs at the community center and appointments.
Health and demographic trends mean that more men and women will undertake caregiving roles than in the recent past. “With increases in life expectancy and the aging of the baby-boom generation, larger numbers of Americans are reaching older ages at which there is heightened risk of chronic conditions” and more individuals in need of regular care, note aging experts Vicki Freedman and Jennifer Wolff in a new report on caregiving.
Family caregiving is work and a calling, indeed, and should be honored as such. But it is not so much an individual summons than a vocation of a whole group. The biblical command to honor one’s father and mother could be understood as one issued not to an individual but to a family, a household, perhaps even a generation. When individuals step into the daily work required by this command, it is ideally within the context of supportive extended families, institutions, and congregations in which caregivers are supported and loved.
The ongoing coronavirus has constrained some of the very communities that encircle family caregivers. As individuals limit their scope of interaction, in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, those who are family caregivers find themselves with fewer people to share the work. A September survey of unpaid caregivers illustrates a significant rise in caregiving. The average caregiving hours by each caregiver rose by 7 hours per week after coronavirus hit. Nearly a third of caregivers anticipate they will be spending over 40 hours a week caregiving in the future due to the impact of COVID-19.The coronavirus complicates caregiving. As one woman explained of the care for a relative with cancer, “It is harder for me to get the thing she needs. I am afraid to go to a store for groceries and medications. I do not ask for help at all because I am afraid for others to come into our home for safety reasons.”
The transition to telehealth and virtual community, precipitated by COVID-19, is one rich in frustration and confusion. Family caregivers must exercise prodigious patience in learning and guiding loved ones through these systems. For other caregivers, there is a need to provide additional emotional and family support while regular congregational activities or enrichment programs are closed.
3 ways the local church can honor caregiving as a vocation
Reverend Amy Zeittlow, who leads a congregation in Illinois, observes that every time the church gathers, “the pews are filled with family care superheroes on different types of care journeys.” This reality persists when worshipers are socially distanced or online. Pastors can honor, specifically, the caregiving vocation in several ways.
1. Name caregiving as a vocation and as work.
Too often, the labor of those who offer care is taken for granted. It is assumed and underestimated. But the work and its toll are real.
2. Ask caregivers how things are for them at work.
The fundamental curiosity that helps pastors breach the barrier between Sunday’s worship and the Monday to Saturday world of work should be offered to family caregivers as well. It just so happens that home is often a caregivers’ place of work, or just one of their workplaces. About half of all family caregivers are also engaged in paid employment. Negotiating the competing demands of two callings may be a defining tension of one’s caregiving journey.
3. Remain aware of the resources that can support family caregivers.
For those who are both family caregivers and employed workers, workplace protections such as paid time off are a vital benefit. During COVID-19, for example, Congress authorized emergency paid sick days for those caring for a person seeking treatment or diagnosis for the coronavirus. In over a dozen states, workplaces must allow workers the opportunity to earn paid time off for illness or caregiving. Sometimes individuals are unaware that they are entitled to this time or avoid requesting it. Pastors can help keep these resources in view and encourage time off for care and rest to become a community norm.
4. Walk with family caregivers through seasons of uncertainty.
Caregiving work is often “after hours” in the quiet of a home rather than the bustle of a factory or office. And some of this work is the work of worry, of carrying doctor’s statements issued in terms of percentages and probabilities. The weighing of risks that nearly every American must consider in the time of coronavirus is particularly salient for the medically vulnerable and the elderly. Communicate with those in your community that they are not alone in facing these uncertainties. Hold them in prayer. And remember that when the sun sets on many other jobs, the work of caregiving begins.