As the baby boom generation--and their parents--age, the need for home-based caretaking is steadily growing. Current estimates suggest there are more than 25 million family caregivers active in America today. Roughly 80% of all home care today is provided by relatives, often untrained and unassisted, and frequently overwhelmed by the task.
Political initiatives at both the state and local level may eventually improve the availability and affordability of home caretaking assistance. But regardless of changes in the law or financing, primary responsibility for home care will always rest with families. Religious communities can and should be an important source of support and practical help for families facing the multiple challenges of extended home care.
How to Help
Say a prayer during each service, not only for those who are sick, but also for their family caregivers. Family caregivers tend to be invisible and their contributions minimized or ignored. By offering prayers for caregivers and care receivers during the weekly service you will both raise the self esteem of caregivers and honor the bonds of family devotion that are part of every faith tradition. In addition, consider creating a prayer chain of people who will pray independently at home for families in need.
Be a truly "Caring Congregation." Survey the caregiving families in your community. Identify the help they need most -- transportation, respite, help with insurance or other paperwork, household support, regular meals, guidance on end-of-life issues. Organize a volunteer network to respond to the needs most frequently cited.
Establish a family caregiver support network or buddy system. Introduce caregivers in the congregation to one another. Provide them with the opportunity to support and learn from each other by giving them meeting space within the church or synagogue, or creating a caregiver phone or email list. Provide a trained leader or pastoral counselor for the group.
Train congregants to support the emotional and spiritual needs of your community. Training will help increase congregational awareness and sensitivity, and expand the resources available to caregiving or grieving families.
Honor your family caregivers with an event that recognizes their contributions and provides them with some fun--a special dinner or some other kind of outing. Be sure to include respite care as part of the event for those who need it.
Provide educational programs and/or materials on end-of-life planning. Death and dying are natural parts of life, but they are not issues most of us are comfortable talking about. You can help the members of your faith community prepare for the end of life by:
Providing information on powers of attorney, living wills and other advance directives.
Developing a resources list of area professionals (elder care attorneys, geriatric care managers, financial planners) who can help families in time of need.
Put together readings from your faith tradition that speak to caregiver issues and needs. Present them as a gift to caretakers in your congregation so they will always have spiritual support when they need it.
Compile a list of local resources for families in caregiving situations. This list can include government agencies, local home care agencies, medical equipment suppliers, hospices, assisted living communities, nearby senior centers and adult day care facilities, taxi services that have wheelchair accessible vehicles, pharmacies that deliver, and more.
Establish a congregational health ministry to minister to the healthcare needs of your community. As part of the program, recruit volunteers from the congregation to serve as support caregivers who are willing to provide respite for caregivers and a friendly visit to care recipients. Consider organizing all of the suggestions above under the auspices of the health ministry for a truly comprehensive program.