Caregivers need support, compassion from their church community

February 28, 2017

Editor's Note: This is part one of a two-part series on caregivers for seniors. 

Recently I asked my 93-year old mother if she thought of herself as a caregiver with my father. I could tell by her response that how she cared for my dad with "a few added tasks" was simply a continuation of the love and commitment that she had exercised for the past 66 years. Her response, not unlike other senior caregivers with whom I have discussed such care, captures the essence of the vocation of caregiving: a Christ-like compassionate service and dedication to someone who needs some form of regular assistance to maintain their dignity.

So who is a caregiver? The National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) defines a caregiver — sometimes called an informal caregiver — as an unpaid individual (for example, a spouse, family member, friend, or neighbor) involved in assisting others with activities of daily living and/or medical tasks. In one 2016 study, NAC and AARP noted that of the approximately 43.5 million American caregivers, 79 percent provided unpaid care to an adult age 50 or older. The average duration of a caregiver's role is four years. 

Caregivers' roles and responsibilities with seniors can range from short-term acute care to long-term care for a chronic condition like Alzheimer's or terminal cancer. When those persons being cared for gradually lose the ability to take care of their own needs, the family caregiver is called to take on more care responsibilities. Almost half perform medical and nursing tasks; more than 96 percent provide help with activities of daily living (ADLs) such as personal hygiene, dressing and undressing, getting in and out of bed, toileting assistance or instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs) such as taking prescribed medications, shopping for groceries and meal preparation, transportation and coordinating physician visits, according to the AARP and United Health Hospital Fund.

In Blessings of Age, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) pastoral message on Growing Older Within the Faith Community (1999), the U.S. bishops have recognized the role of caregivers as spouses, children, or personal friends who sometimes find themselves in an unexpected position of caregiving leaving them feeling unprepared and even overwhelmed. There may be mixed emotions of love, compassion and concern along with resentment, frustration and exhaustion as they try to address the multiple needs of the loved one while trying to find a balance for their own spiritual, mental, physical, emotional and social well-being. 

The bishops acknowledge: "We know that caregivers themselves need care. The responsibilities of caregiving can be emotionally and physically exhausting. Some of you are simultaneously caring for children and older relatives. Many of you are employed; some of you have had to adjust work schedules. Finances can be a serious concern. Some of you who are priests and religious are dealing with these issues. You have a right to expect support from your faith community." 

It is evident that family caregivers cannot perform their vocation of loving service alone. 

Also in the pastoral message from the USCCB, the bishops have called other family members and the parish community to become compassionate and generous in supporting caregivers for those seniors who need assistance. In the next April 11 column, we will address how other family members and the parish community can support caregivers. For more information, contact Mark Ciesielski at or 713-741-8712.

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

Portraits of senior caregivers

On changes or adjustments in daily living:
Carl, age 82, took care of his wife Betty who had a heart condition and diabetes for about two to three years before she died. “My daily life changed when I realized I wanted to care for my wife the same way she had (lovingly) cared for me.”
Mable traveled to Louisiana to help take care of her older brother. “I would visit him regularly to make sure he was taken care of.” 

On developing a new role or perspective:
Cecelia, 72, took care of her husband for 27 years after he suffered a stroke. “He had been a wonderful father to our four children and a loving, fun friend since childhood. I was worried that my husband, my rock and support for the family, was not able to continue to do so. I had to be both father and mother to my children.”

Lionel, 80s, maintains ongoing care for his wife. “Caring for my wife is just a natural part of our relationship.” 
Alice, 73, took care of her husband with cancer for one year, her mother with kidney failure for three years and her dad with prostate cancer for three years before their deaths. “(Being a professional nurse) I became more patient and understanding that the ill cannot take care of themselves.”

Sheila, 72, took care of her husband who had lung cancer for four years and previously lymphoma for 20 years until his death. “I tried not to think of myself and becoming devoted to the care of my husband …(later) I realized that caregivers need to be aware of their own health needs!” 

Hilda, 74, continues to care for her husband, Fred. Since he had his stroke her days have been very busy. “My daily life has changed as a caregiver in that I am not able to do some things I used to do.”