Whenever I talk about the importance of the private sphere--the intangible web of relationships and influence that finds its heart in the home--I often mention that with the growing number of seniors in our world, we in the church need to start planning for this looming ministry need. And it's not just ministry to seniors themselves. It's also ministry to their caregivers.
We step up though most of us have jobs. For years, economists warned that women entering the work force would become unavailable as unpaid caregivers for the elderly. Plausible -- but untrue. Family caregiving continues at high levels, though more than half of adult children who help elderly parents also work full time, and 10 percent part time.
That can exact a steep toll. Most caregivers with jobs report sometimes having to arrive late or leave early; smaller proportions take leaves, cut back to part-time schedules or turn down promotions. A few even give up their jobs.
Nevertheless, "work doesn't seem to reduce caregiving much," Urban Institute researcher Richard Johnson says. Relatives "just do it. They suck it up. They make the sacrifices."
We step up despite the expense. The out-of-pocket costs of caring for older adults average more than $5,500 a year, a recent national survey found, causing about a third of caregivers to dip into their savings, cut back on home maintenance, or reduce saving for their own futures.
We step up even if we have children at home. Boomers deferred childbearing, so they can have dependents at both ends of the age spectrum -- the sandwich generation.
We step up even if we're elderly ourselves. Most adult children caring for parents are in their 40s and 50s. But seniors' lengthening life spans and declining disability rates mean that by the time they need our help, we may be close to or in retirement.
It's a good thing we do step up. Attempting to pay for the hours that families voluntarily devote to caregiving, which AARP valued at $350 billion in 2006, would break the national treasury. "Family caregiving is essential," Feinberg says. "And under-recognized."
Two heroines in the sandwich generation are my sisters. They have each added caring for their mothers-in-law to their own active family's needs. I marvel at them, having some idea of the personal costs involved. Maybe it's listening to them and other friends who are in the same caregiving season that has made me think about this issue. But I'd be curious to know what your churches are doing. Do you have a caregivers' ministry in place? If so, what does it look like and how does it function? What about a seniors ministry? And if you're a caregiver, what kind of ministry would be most helpful to you?
Leave a comment and let's see what we can learn from each other.