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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Ask the Matriarch - Juggling Parish and Parent Care Edition

We who are pastoral caregivers are often also caring for our children or our parents, and some of us are caring for both...hence this week's question.

Hi Matriarchs:

I know that there are lots of RevGals out there who are juggling mothering and ministry, but I'm wondering about those who are at the other end of the life cycle and are juggling caregiving and ministry. My Dad is 86, and has a dementia. My step-mother is the same age and is a very late stage Alzheimer's patient, requiring total care. My step-mom is in a long term care facility that is attached to the (very good) Assisted Living facility, where my Dad lives, so their day to day needs are well looked after. That being said, in my Dad's case, he still gets lonely, he still gets worried, he still gets frustrated and upset and it is me he turns to. It always seems to get particularly bad around Easter and Christmas (which is totally understandable), but, of course, that is the time when my own resources are pretty low.

I try to reframe the situation is the most positive way possible, it's great for my prayer life, it keeps me humble, it gives me awareness of what a great many in my parish are dealing with, etc. etc., But sometimes it gets pretty difficult and the guilt rears its ugly head and bites me pretty hard. I'm wondering about others who are in similar situations, what kind of things they've discovered that can help, and any words of wisdom they might be able to share.

Jennifer, who blogs at An Orientation of Heart, writes

Dear Friend,
I think all of us who feel stretched thin by the demands of ministry so understand the frustrations and challenges of family life, especially at critical stages and critical times in life. Something or someone always seems to suffer and may need more than we have to offer. You haven’t said how near or far away for folks are. Can you plan some visits after Christmas and Easter (and other times, too) so that your dad has something on the calendar to look forward to?

Who do you talk to? Maybe it would be helpful to talk to someone about the guilt you’re feeling. If you’re concerned about not being as available as you’d like, is it possible to set up a regular time to chat on the phone? Again, it might help your dad to have that chat to anticipate and you, so that you could speak with him when you don’t feel quite so crunched. Plans for contacts that you feel good about may help you feel better about your availability to your dad and step-mom. If you feel guilty because you’d like to do more or be there more, do act on that! Regrets are not comfortable things at all…and time is limited.

If you feel guilty because you’re being made to feel so, think about what you are able to do, communicate that, and help your dad widen his network of support so that the burden doesn’t fall completely to you. Stephen ministers, visitation pastors, chaplains in assisted living settings, and friendly visitors are all great sources of support and nurture. Maybe knowing that there are others in your family’s life who are reaching out to them will be a source of comfort to you, too.

Muthah, who blogs at A Stone of Witness, writes

Dear Daughter-sistah,
I went through this time with my mother. She too was in a good facility and my brother lived only 15 mins. away. But the guilt does raise its head. I finally figured out that it was MY problem and not my mother's and that helped.

Check with the social worker where your father is. Also check with you father's pastor so that the real needs of them are adequately covered. See to it that they are called on and visited regularly and then call them to see how they are getting along. You need to be able to salve your own anxiety about your parents' care.

My mother had outlived most of her friends so see if you can find church members who might be willing to visit with them. I knew that I could not care for my mother as well as the people in the retirement facility could and I just kept reminding myself of that. One of the problems with people late in lives is that they remember things that only family members can remember--your childhood, when they were young, etc. Share some of those stories with their caregivers. It will help them and help you.

Remember God has given you a ministry--they are your concern at present. If you are lucky enough to have a parish that is sympathetic to your situation you probably can negotiate time off to visit more often, but your parish is your main concern. You will always feel a bit guilty knowing that your most loved people in the whole world are at a time when they seem to need you most of all. But one thing that I have found is that when a person gets to that time when they are anxious about life/death issues, most likely they cannot talk about them to their children. Nor should I think that children can really help parents go through that. There IS an aspect of dying that is 'a lonesome valley' and we DO have to walk it by ourselves.

It sounds like you have done what you can. Prayer is what unites us at times when there is nothing else that will work. And allow yourself and them to be placed on your parish's prayer list. You will be in my prayers, Sistah. This is not an easy journey for them or for you, but know that we all have to walk this path in some way.

Sharon, at Tidings of Comfort and Joy, writes

Our amazingly strong and loving RevGal sister, please know that you have already done some very difficult and very helpful things: You have made sure that your loved ones are well cared for. You have bumped up against your limitations. You have said out loud that what you do seems inadequate and that you are feeling guilty and overwhelmed. Reframing is a great thing, and so is an enhanced prayer life.

The "Serenity Prayer" comes to mind for your complex concerns. I do not suggest this lightly or tritely. It is my own prayerful way to sort out where I might be over-functioning and where I might be under-functioning when I don't know what to do.

"Lord, help me to accept the things I cannot change ..." You are facing so much sadness and pain that you will not be able to change, yours and theirs. I wonder if this where your guilt is coming from. Can you allow yourself to lovingly accept the limitations: your limitations (time, energy, strategies) as well as your parents' limitations (age, ability to understand and accept) and even the limitations of the situation itself (it is messy, not solve-able)?

Then there's " . . . change the things I can . . . " Increase your self care. Whatever self care you think is enough, do more than that. There might be other ways you can increase the support they get (from friends, family, their church?) and the support you get (from all possible sources!) Sometimes just changing anything that you can change, even if it seems insignificant or silly, changes the bigger picture. I usually try to involve ice cream or flowers or music somehow; your strategies may vary.

" . . . and the wisdom to know the difference!" You are wise; it shows. Let that wisdom speak to you and free you from all anxiety and guilt. You love them immensely, that's obvious, so trust that, in all the ways you care for them, you are already loving them with the always-more-than-love of God.

Are you juggling parish and parent care? Do you have some insights to share? Use the "Post a Comment" function to join the conversation.

May you live in God's amazing grace+



  1. I so understand the complexity of feelings in this situation. My mom is still alive, but 500 miles away. There is no way I can do more than get there for an occasional whirlwind stay. I stopped staying at my siblings' homes because it was a strain on all of us. They are taking the brunt of the day-to-day decisions and grunt work, and so I do a lot of listening to them, trying not to second-guess their decisions. But yes. The guilt. It sucks.

  2. I am concerned about one of the previous posters comment "your parish is your main priority" I too struggle with a ton of guilt about not being able to be present to my parents and my children/spouse in the way that I would like to be but I know that they are, not only wonderful blessings in my life but part of my life's vocation. I think that by naming the guilt you have accomplished the first step. I also think that it is okay sometime to say to parishioners, "I need to be with my dad today...I won't be able to attend that meeting, event, etc. For some crazy, unknown reason God has called us to be clergy folks but also, undeniably called us to be mothers, daughters, sisters, etc. - I don't believe that one is at the expense of the other. So, it is always, always a constant balancing act and continuous reminder of our humanity and need for grace.

  3. When I was still the full-time caregiver of my mother, who lived with me for 25 years and had been diagnosed with Altzheimer's, she refused to get out of bed one Sunday morning. I could (and did) dress a child and make him or her go to church (I have three), but it's impossible to do that with an adult. And I figured the congregation might notice if I didn't show up (you know, empty pulpit and all that -- tongue firmly in cheek), so I had to leave Mother at home that day, at least during the 11:00 o'clock service. I called to let my people know I wouldn't be there during the Sunday school hour, and they understood. I prayed over the potluck after the service, but not knowing what Mother might have done (in her advancing stages of dementia), I didn't stay to eat. Not even long enough to take plates home for Mother and me.

    After getting shingles, possibly because of the stress, I put Mother in a nursing home, where they nearly killed her. (Long story.) That's when my guilt ramped up. My sister, who lives about an hour away and doesn't work outside her home, took Mother in, but lasted only a few weeks before putting her in a nursing home there. She (my sister) also got shingles from the stress of visiting our mother daily in the nursing home. (Side note: Our two brothers left the caregiving tasks to us.)

    It isn't easy to minister to the people of your congregation and take care of children and/or parents, but you must take care of yourself. I should have put Mother in a nursing home BEFORE I got shingles.

    Mother died in 2004, and I am now retired from the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church.

  4. As a layperson with aging parents 250 miles away, I want to share a book that I've found extremely helpful. It's called "They're Your Parents, Too" by Francine Russo. I initially found it in my local library and it has made a huge difference in my relationships with my siblings (which I would have said were bulletproof, but when you deal with aging parent issues, everything can change!) Highly recommended.

  5. i'm currently living this reality as well. my caregiving is for my mom and a 60 yr old cousin with early alzheimers, both living in separate care homes on opposite sides of the city.

    i have found it is full time involvment that insures they receive the care required and first hand observance brings more understanding than continual wondering. care home staff and operation is not infallible. educating myself in understanding their disease has been empowering and enlightening. i'd encourage you to explore and discover more from professionals in this healthcare area to help you. is there a caregivers' support group from which you could benefit by attending and learning?

    i would encourage you to stay as involved as you can,understanding this is a time of interdependance of Christ's Body, rather inviting assistance in your parish work - or delegation of - seeing this as a time for your parishioners to carry more ministry that will enable you to fulfill your caregiving role with your parents to the level of peace you desire. you will appreciate having done so when they have passed on. some may even be interested in care home visitation as ministry on a regular basis and you could be instrumental in establishing this new mission outreach. God is calling in so many new ways as our population ages and this situation becomes the norm. opps to see as He sees - hear as He hears...

    persons with dementia do not have a capacity for retention of understanding setting appointments for future events, so that isn't a consolation for them or you. it's your ministry of presence that matters. and your prayers for Holy SPirit's comfort and care of them while away.

    might you ask for some volunteer or church member who would consider being a regular companion that would be faithful in attending to time with your father? this will comfort you as well as him in the regularity and familiarity. most care homes are aware of organizations offering paid companion positions if that is an option.

    i bless you with the Peace of Christ to mount that guard over your heart and mind that sets you free to do and be all for which you are created.

  6. have expanded on this now as a blog post at InSpirit as it is such a current topic


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