By Gary Giesbrecht
The COVID-19 pandemic has been with us over a year. Since it began, we have been living under a constant diet of change with an overriding emotion of fear. Provincial and federal governments have mandated restrictions in hope of containing the virus, affecting every sector of society.
This constant fear and change negatively impact our mental and spiritual health. A hard-hit and hard to quantify area is the care given during this time. While news and media outlets highlight daily the strain on front line and essential workers, away from the news and the media are the caregivers caring for those in need as best they can in this time of isolation and loneliness. Their contribution to the wellbeing of these persons cannot be underestimated. From a Canadian perspective, caregivers in Canada are not alone.
One Quarter of Canadians Are Caregivers
According to the Statistics Canada report “Caregivers in Canada, 2018” (www.statcan.gc.ca, search “Caregivers in Canada, 2018”), “approximately one in four Canadians aged 15 and older (or 7.8 million people) provided care to a family member or friend with a long-term health condition, a physical or mental disability, or problems related to aging.” This further breaks down to the following main categories:
- 48% reported caring primarily for their parents and parents-in-laws (caregivers mostly aged 45–64 years);
- 13% reported providing care to their spouse or partner (caregivers mostly aged 65 years and older);
- 8% reported providing care to their child with long term health conditions, or a physical or mental disability.
According to this report, “Unpaid caregiving provided by family and friends has become increasingly recognized as an important role in society. Caregiving reduces the social costs associated with health services and institutionalization. In addition, care recipients benefit when they are able to remain at home and maintain a positive quality of life.”
Self-Care Is Appropriate
It is normal to care for a person in need, but it’s another matter for the caregiver to look after himself or herself. Self-care sometimes has negative connotations in the church and in our society. Connotations may include (but are not limited to) the following: it is prideful to care for oneself, “I am the only one that can do this,” “I must put the needs of the other person above my own needs,” “what will my family think?” and, as a value, “I am what I do.”
When reflecting on the story of creation, we see we are created in the image of God. Peter Scazzero says, “God has made us whole people, in his image (see Gen 1:27). That includes physical, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and social dimensions” (The Emotionally Healthy Church, p. 54). Caregiving stresses a person in all the areas of one’s life in one way or another. The focus here is briefly on the emotional, spiritual and relational dimensions, recognizing I do not have the space to address the physical and intellectual.
The Importance of Being
In Luke 10:38–42, Luke tells the story of Jesus visiting in the home of Mary and Martha. This story highlights the action of Martha making all the preparations, and the inaction of Mary “doing nothing” but listening to Jesus. Martha wanted Jesus to tell Mary to help her, but instead Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (vv. 41–42).
Mary chose to take care of herself by being in the presence of Jesus. In one sense Mary and Martha represent two sides of our identity, that of being and doing. Often, we err on the side of doing and get so busy we do not take the time to be.
The caregiver dilemma is this: the time and energy invested in (doing) caring for someone with special needs in most cases does not equal the person getting better. This requires the caregiver to change the definition of success to include caring for himself or herself and learn to be. In learning to be, the caregiver becomes aware of their own needs and how to find help in a healthy way. The following suggestions may be helpful in different ways and different times in the caregiving journey.
Embrace the Journey of Grief and Loss
Knowing your responses when you are tired, knowing the triggers that raise your anxiety, and knowing the signs of depression are helpful in maintaining and restoring mental and spiritual health. (For information on depression, including signs of depression, see https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/conditionsandtreatments/depression).
Grief is a normal response when we experience changes or loss. The bigger the change and the greater the loss, the more intense the grief will be. Emotions of grief are on the negative side of the emotional spectrum. For most of us, these are difficult to handle.
After denial, these emotions include anger, fear, hopelessness and depression. These emotions can appear to come out of nowhere. They do not come in any set order and may come in waves. (For more information on grief, see http://www.lifeway.com and search “How to Cope with Grief” in Articles.)
Working through these feelings is part of the healing process. Eventually there will be less volatility and the gift of grief becomes evident as one embraces hope, new insights and meaning, and begins to look outward.
If these emotions persist, help is available in counselling and through your family doctor.
Enlarge Your Network of Support
Enlarging a network of support starts with a healthy inner circle and engages specific resources. If married, the spousal relationship needs to be maintained and healthy, with extended family and friends included in a healthy inner circle. For single persons, a close network with significant friends and family is important.
An expanded circle could include a support group for caregivers. A resource group could also include professionals and volunteers who could help in various areas. These resources could include pastors, doctors, social workers, in-home care support and friends to help with certain tasks.
Develop a Spiritual Centre in Christ
I use the word “develop” because, spiritually, none of us have it all together. Learning to have a deep vulnerability before God helps us grow and mature in our faith.
In 2 Corinthians 12:9, the Lord says to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Many disciplines can help to shape and form our relationship with Christ; here, I mention two:
Pray prayers of lament. At least a third of the psalms are laments. The psalmists cry out to God about their struggles. For instance, in Psalm 102:1–11, the psalmist pours out his heart before God and then in verse 12 the psalmist says, “But you, Lord, sit enthroned forever; your renown endures through all generations.” The prayer of lament allows us to voice feelings of anger, fear, hopelessness knowing that God will not reject us, and will meet us in that space and lead us to a renewed relationship with him.
Participate in the life of a church as much as possible. To identify with a church community is profound and encouraging. Knowing that you belong to a community where you can be encouraged in your faith and encourage others opens the door to other disciplines such as prayer, communion, fellowship and more.
Tension and Reward
Caregiving is not for the faint of heart; caregivers are pushed and pulled in many directions. There will be times the caregiver may want to give up, and times the caregiver will embrace the journey. My mother had Parkinson’s for 18 years (16 of those years my dad cared for her in the home). Near the end of her journey my wife asked her what advice she would have for her granddaughter standing beside her. Without blinking she said, “Seek first the kingdom of God.” When caregiving is given in the context of participating in the kingdom of God, the ultimate reward will be “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:21).
Gary Giesbrecht, BRE, BA, MDiv (Pastoral Counselling), is an adult Third Culture Kid who grew up in India and has been married to Carol for almost 41 years. They have a son and daughter who are both married, and enjoy two grandchildren. The Giesbrechts live in Lethbridge and Gary pastors the Coaldale Mennonite Church in Coaldale, Alta. Gary enjoys photography, camping and being in the mountains.