Beginning at the Cross: How the Church ministers to caregivers

April 11, 2017

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a series on caregivers, families and the Church
The Church community’s response to caregivers of older adults rightfully begins at the cross where Jesus initiated this ministry (see the Friends of St. John the Caregiver at

In His last moments of life on the cross Jesus bestows this mutual care of love between His grieving mother and His beloved disciple, John. They, along with the other faithful disciples at the cross, remind us that the Church community remains present to support those who Christ blesses in caregiving circumstances (John 19:26-27).

So whether you are already engaged in or newly considering the vocation of caregiving as an individual or as a parish community, take a few minutes to immerse yourselves in that Scriptural scene to receive the caregiving blessing of Jesus’ love. This blessing will empower and strengthen you for the ministry of caregiving.

The Catholic Church’s long history of embracing Jesus’ care for the most vulnerable is reflected today in its social teachings that call for a profound respect for the dignity of all people. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) have reinforced this in Blessings of Age, the USCCB pastoral message on Growing Older Within the Faith Community: “One parish cannot meet all these needs of the older person; however, the parish must recognize these needs and direct older persons, their family members, and caregivers to appropriate resources” (24).

At the local level Catholic Charities provides a variety of social services to anyone aged 60 or older living alone or who is alone most of the day. In addition, Catholic Charities Mamie George Community Center in Richmond offers social services and senior wellness programs.

The Archdiocesan Office of Aging assists parish senior groups and three senior senates with a variety of educational and spiritual resources. In addition, the office can provide parish leaders with referrals to various community organizations which provide a variety of caregiver educational conferences, parish team training and support for older adult caregiver services.

The Archdiocese also sponsors St. Dominic Village as a long-term seniors’ residential care community that ranges in care from independent living, to assisted living and to nursing care. A short-term respite care option is also available for those persons within a provider’s care so the caregivers can utilize some time for their own self-care.

Families can support a primary family caregiver by:

1. Having ongoing conversations how to share in the caregiving roles and responsibilities. Focus on what’s possible rather than on what’s not possible. Discuss the possibility of paying for a part-time professional caregiver to offer the family on-site caregiver time off for self-care.

2. Scheduling periodic visits with the care receiver to provide self-care for the primary caregiver.

3. Making weekly phone calls and old-fashioned letter writing to the person being cared for and the caregiver to communicate one’s caring and concern.

Parish communities can support caregivers by:

1. Recognizing and celebrating the presence of their vulnerable older adults and their caregivers. They can identify senior parishioners who have health care issues or disabilities that require supportive care to maintain their well-being. Those parishioners, experienced in caregiving, can bring valuable wisdom and encouragement to others at various stages of caregiving. Also, they can raise community awareness of caregiving by including caregiver and care receiver intentions in the prayers of the faithful at Mass. All parishioners can pray for them.

2. Providing social or peer support groups for caregivers that are directed by a professional pastoral care worker or licensed counselor. These opportunities provide caregivers with self-care opportunities, increase a sense of hopefulness and connectedness with community, and address specific concerns of caregivers.

3. Sponsoring educational presentations for pastoral ministers and parish staff to develop appropriate resources and skills when responding to caregivers’ roles and needs.

4. Hosting a “Caregiver Day” or ongoing seminars to educate parishioners on caregiving. As people age, a caregiving plan becomes essential. Such plans help people to assess their healthcare needs, financial resources, legal issues, living arrangement options, social support, personal assets and strengths as well as identify available community resources to address these needs through the lens of pastoral and spiritual care.

They can also help caregivers assess more realistically their own physical and emotional health as well as address issues related to maintaining their own family and employment. Finally, appropriate community resources can be offered to support caregivers’ self-care and the needs of those for whom they care. 

Mark Ciesielski is an associate director in the Archdiocesan Office of Aging Ministry.





Portraits of senior caregivers in the Archdiocese

On parish support:

Carl, 82: “My parish’s Knights of Columbus helped me pack up my house and move my wife and I into a residential senior center; my parish’s pastoral staff directed us to the right people and services.”

Cecelia, 72: “My parish prayer group was with the family every day to pray with us for my husband’s stroke recovery ...they helped me and my children bear the unexpected.”

On self-care as a caregiver:

Alice, 73: “Staying healthy and keep going. Being kind.”

Sheila, 72: “Taking time to rest and asking God for strength.”

Carl, 82: “Be truthful with your own doctor about your health (as you manage as a caregiver).”

On blessings received:

Lionel, 80s: “The love I received in return for my care (of my wife).”

Hilda, 74: “Thanksgiving for sustaining my own good health.”