A few weeks ago, I attended a book launch party for my former colleague Rob Moll's new book, The Art of Dying. While words like dying and caregiving normally don't compel me, I have to admit that during Rob's reading, I was hooked. I stayed hooked during our conversation afterward as he told me how women are leading the charge on transforming the way we care for the elderly and the way we view dying. And he shared some thoughts on the importance of the church in all this. So because GFL is all about women leading in the church, I asked him to write us something. Let me know what you think. —Caryn Rivadeneira
Women are at the forefront of one of the most fundamental transformations of the 21st century. For the first time in human history, the number of people older than 65 will be larger than those under age 5. Demographers say that the fastest growing age group is those older than 85. One study found that this group will be diagnosed with a terminal illness an average of three years before their death. Those years are filled with doctor and ER visits, cooking and cleaning, filling prescriptions and assisting with the bathroom.
Women are central to this demographic shift because as these elderly need to be cared for, many women—daughters, nieces, mothers, and friends—are the ones stepping up to meet this challenge of caregiving. In fact, of the 66 million Americans doing this work for a family member, two-thirds are female, with an average age of 46. Their unpaid services to family members are estimated to be worth $148 billion to $188 billion annually.
While many men share the work of caring for their elderly family members, it is mostly women who take up the task. The load may not fall the way it should. However, the fact remains that it is women who, step up to the caregiving challenge.
For women, and for all caregivers, these facts have implications—especially for the church.
1. Caregivers need help
The caregiving task is difficult, time consuming, and at times overwhelmingly stressful. Time away from work or expenses for professional health care leave many women financially strapped. A 2009 study found that half of all women caregivers suffered some financial impact because of their care while 15 percent suffered a high degree of hardship. The same study found that caregivers report that their health had declined as a result of their caregiving. In fact, women who spend at least nine hours per week providing care are twice as likely to have coronary heart disease. Higher stress, less happiness and greater likelihood of depression are also linked to providing long-term care to a family member.
Churches need to be a major source of support for caregivers. An intergenerational community gives the elderly an opportunity to continue living meaningful lives, even as their health declines. Passing on stories of their faith and wisdom can be tremendously beneficial to the young and old. The young receive the values of their grandparents' generation while the old can find purpose in their last stage of life. The elderly can also participate in church life, through tasks during the week and prayer throughout the week, in a way others cannot. Having such meaningful activity is helpful for the emotional and physical health of the elderly.
Churches can also support caregivers simply by sharing the burden. Finding suitable nursing homes or rehabilitation centers can be extremely time consuming. Making sure that an elderly family member is safe during the day, taking her medications properly and paying her bills are among the many tasks that caregivers may need help doing or from which they just need a break.
2. Caregivers need a goal
Caregiving is not simply a job that falls to us for a time and one we hope to do well because of our sense of family responsibility or love for a parent. We do provide care for those reasons. But Christians, who 16 centuries ago created the first hospitals, have long provided care for the ill for specific theological reasons.
The body, created in the image of God, was considered to be sacred. Rather than abandon those in need of care, they found ways to honor God and his image by caring for those he created.
More importantly, however, Christians understood that because Jesus Christ died and rose from the grave—and promised the same to his followers—that Christians should die in such a way that reflects that belief. Today's long-term caregivers are able to recover the ancient Christian tradition of ars moriendi, the art of dying.
When Jesus promised his followers, on the night before he died, that he would prepare a place for them, he also promised to bring them to himself. Christians have traditionally expected this meant that Jesus would somehow visit the dying. And they stood watch with the dying person to see if she spoke with Jesus or other family members who had come to accompany the dying person to the next life. Christians needed to prepare themselves spiritually for this transition.
Today's caregivers have an opportunity to relearn and to teach others about the Christian art of dying. Long-term and chronic diseases can require stressful and lengthy periods of caregiving, and caregivers may need support and assistance from family, friends, and church communities. However, the goal of helping someone to die well can be an immensely enriching experience, during one of the most important periods in a person's life—the time during which someone leaves this life and enter the life to come.
Have you seen or done this sort of caregiving? How well does your church carry on the tradition of the art of dying? How might it improve this important ministry?