Early in her marriage, Annette Henderson’s in-laws made her feel like part of the family.
Annette and her husband, Bill, settled on the family farm in Fairview, Mont., where Bill grew up. Bill’s parents, who lived across the road, visited frequently and enjoyed helping out with the grandchildren.
“We were like an extended family circle around here,” says Annette, who, along with Bill, attends Sidney Assembly of God. “The caregiving became a mutual thing. They cared for us and about us and we cared for them and about them.”
It only seemed natural, then, that when Bill’s mother, Emeline, developed memory problems, Bill and Annette stepped in to help.
“At first she would come over and wouldn’t remember what she came for,” Annette says. “But she knew there was security here.”
Bill and Annette helped Bill’s father, Willie, take care of Emeline for six years as her memory slowly eroded. However, when the elderly woman wandered outside in subzero temperatures without a coat, the family decided they could no longer provide all the supervision she needed.
Though they made the difficult decision to move Emeline to a nursing home, the family remained involved in her care.
“We said, ‘This is Mom’s new home, so this will be our home, too,’ ” Annette says. “Sometimes we’d go to visit and wouldn’t come home until midnight.”
Emeline eventually lost most of her memory. Yet her faith in Christ remained intact, which proved a blessing to the family.
“We noticed that every time we mentioned Jesus’ name, tears would spill out of her eyes,” Annette says. “People would say, ‘There is something different about her room. There’s a peace and tranquility in here.’ They wanted what she had and we could explain to them what it was.”
Emeline died in 2002, six years after moving to the care facility. Then Willie developed health problems and needed assistance with transportation, paying bills and taking medication. He died in April 2005 at the age of 90. In all, Bill and Annette spent nearly 15 years as caregivers for Bill’s elderly parents.
“It helps in your grieving when you know you don’t have to look back and say, ‘I wish I’d spent time with them, I wish I could have been there,’ ” Annette says through tears. “We’d do it all over again. We don’t have any regrets.”
The Hendersons aren’t alone in their willingness to provide long-term care and support for ailing family members. According to the National Family Caregivers Association, nearly 50 million people provide care for a chronically ill, disabled or aged family member annually.
Cindy Fowler, the organization’s co-founder, expects those figures to increase in coming years as the baby boomer population ages and medical advances allow sick and disabled people to live longer.
“We have a whole range of converging issues that will likely make caregiving a part of more people’s futures,” Fowler says. “What we need now is more awareness and support for those people who are committed to caring for their family members.”
Fowler helped start the National Family Caregivers Association after spending seven years caring for her mother, a Parkinson’s disease patient. She says that while there are rewards to providing such care, there are many challenges as well.
“I struggled because I had my children and my mother, with her many physical disabilities, all in my home needing my attention,” Fowler says. “I was trying to juggle family duties with her medical needs — all while working full time.”
Fowler was part of what has been dubbed the “sandwich generation” — those who simultaneously care for children and elderly parents. The burnout rate in such arrangements is high. Among other factors, Fowler says it’s not uncommon for caregivers to develop mental and physical health problems themselves.
“Caregiving is an isolating occupation,” Fowler says. “It goes on behind closed doors and often becomes an increasingly demanding role. It can be physically draining and financially stressful. Caregivers need education and support and resources. They need to be able to take care of themselves so they don’t burn out.”
Mary Lee Canfield, a licensed Assemblies of God minister and wife of North Olmsted (Ohio) Assembly of God Pastor Kenneth Canfield, says congregations should recognize and respond to caregivers’ needs.
Once a month, North Olmsted Assembly provides free meals and counseling for local hospice patients and their families.
“Some of these families have been caregivers for many years,” Mary Lee says. “They’re so weary and tired. When somebody’s kind and brings a meal, they’re lifted and can’t believe anybody would care enough to do that for them. This is a vital area of ministry that the church should be involved in — being a caregiver to the caregiver.”
Mary Lee served as a caregiver for her own elderly parents before their deaths.
“It’s a hard thing,” she says. “Everybody says, ‘I understand.’ But nobody understands unless they’ve been there. And even if you’ve been there, every case is different.”
Stephen Sparks, former Assemblies of God national director of Senior Adult Ministries and current pastor, agrees that congregations must reach out to caregivers. He says he would like to see more churches providing respite care for families.
“Churches need to form relief groups whereby people could schedule times to go stay with the homebound and let the caregiver have some time away for themselves,” Sparks says. “This would take planning and also training of the relief team regarding proper care of the ill.”
The inability to take a break has been cited as a major cause of burnout among family caregivers.
Sparks says caregivers need to keep their lives balanced by planning time for recreation and rest while maintaining church and spiritual connections.
Annette Henderson says a relationship with God became the most important source of relief for her family.
“God takes your loved one’s hand and holds your hand and directs every step,” she says.