by Dr. Leslie (Jack) Fyans
My elderly mother has been living with us for 2½ years. During that time she has needed more and more care. I’ve learned to help her with “routine” tasks such as dressing, toileting, etc. I love her, but I am getting worn out in the process, and I’m afraid I’m becoming bitter. I feel that something has to give. How can I “honor my mother,” as the Fourth Commandment says, and not go crazy in the process?
Your question touches on a growing dilemma. The role of family care-giving has shifted over the decades, due largely to changes in society. Up until the 1950s, households often included grandparents, and even great-grandparents. These senior members of the family could help care for children, and as time passed, roles reversed.
Over time, our family makeup changed to meet emerging economic and societal patterns: Women began workingoutside the home, family members moved away from home, and medical needs for seniors became more complex. As a result, elderly family members were placed in nursing homes and other facilities that provided a range of care. The importance of a family’s ongoing love and support didn’t necessarily diminish, even as families passed the primary responsibility for the care of their elderly members to specialists and facilities dedicated to that purpose.
Rosalynn Carter wrote that there are four kinds of people: Those who have been caregivers, those who will be, those who are, and those who receive care. Just as your mother took care of your needs as a child, so you now bear the role of caregiver for this woman you love. This includes helping her identify those areas in her life where she can still function independently and supporting her as her needs change. This, to a large degree, is part of what Luther meant when he wrote that to honor our parents is to treat them as precious gifts of God.
Care-giving is a call to serve others in the same spirit that Christ served us. What you are doing is deeply meaningful. It can also be very stressful. The greatest danger a caregiver faces is to not care for oneself.
Schedule time for doing those things that refresh you— being with friends, reading, a favorite hobby. Give yourself permission to accept that you can’t do it all, and certainly not alone.
Questions for “Family Counselor” come from readers and, after steps are taken to assure confidentiality, from contacts made with Lutheran Hour Ministries. Send your questions to “Family Counselor,” The Lutheran Witness, 1333 S. Kirkwood Road, St. Louis, MO 63122-7295. Please include your name and address.