My father was dying of cancer, and I was caring for our twenty-two-year-old son who had already had three surgeries for a brain tumor and now required IV antibiotics four times daily. I skipped my yearly physical and my yearly mammogram. I ate more sugar and exercised less. I slept poorly. Strands of hair came out in my hands as I washed it. Dark half-moons carved themselves into the skin under my eyes, and fatigue fell over me like a persistent fog. During my most intense season of caregiving, my self-care deteriorated rapidly, and my body paid the price.
According to the 2020 AARP Study on Caregiving, I was not alone. Of the approximately 53 million people who are now providing unpaid care for an adult with “health or functional needs,” at least 23 percent say caregiving has worsened their physical health.[i] Kelly Markham, LCSW and palliative care expert, explains the lethal cycle: The caregiver believes that she alone can tend to the loved one properly; the loved one often reinforces that belief. Under the chronic stress of caregiving, the caregiver’s health suffers. Committed to caring for her loved one, the caregiver neglects her own care. Such neglect of self-care has been shown to lead to an earlier and higher mortality rate for caregivers as compared to non-caregivers.
One in five people are now unpaid caregivers and 61 percent of caregivers are women. Chances are, you know an unpaid caregiver. To minister well to our caregiving friends, we can help them understand the gospel call to self-care and assist them in practical ways.
The Gospel Call to Self-Care for Caregivers
First, we can help the caregiver recognize that the type of self-care advocated is not self-indulgence. Sadly, some people have destroyed their own health in the name of denying themselves and taking up their crosses (Luke 9:23). When Jesus called us to deny ourselves, he did not mean for us to deny or denigrate our humanity—our mental, emotional, and physical needs for rest, exercise, good nutrition, and medical care. Jesus himself acknowledged his human limitations by sleeping and eating and taking time away from his ministry to pray and rest (Mark 4:35-40; Matthew 14:22-23). Jesus tended to his physical health and to that of others, showing us how to live our calling to “glorify God” in our bodies, because they are “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19). Self-care of this kind is not self-indulgent, but rather, responsible stewardship.
Second, we can encourage caregivers to rely on the Holy Spirit to grow in humility and dependence. Many caregivers harm their bodies by refusing to accept their physical limitations. My husband, an orthopedist, regularly sees patients who have torn a rotator cuff or fractured a hip while caring for a loved one. The caregiver must be willing to “boast all the more gladly” in her weaknesses, believing that weakness is truly the gospel way (2 Corinthians 12:9). As the caregiver accepts her limitations, humbly seeking and receiving help, she will lean into the body of Christ, those called to bear her burdens with her (Galatians 6:2).
Finally, we can help the caregiver turn away from self-sufficiency and encourage her to trust in God to provide for her loved one’s needs. My friend Jean spent every hour at her husband’s bedside after he had a stroke. She told me, “I was afraid that if I left, something terrible would happen. I slept poorly in a chair nearby and woke every time he stirred. My children offered to give me breaks, but I was afraid they wouldn’t know how to care for him.” After several weeks of enduring the chronic stress, Jean fainted and fell, breaking her leg. Now she had no choice but to entrust her husband’s care to others. She admitted, “I realized that I was trusting in myself rather than in God to care for my husband.” Chuckling, she said, “It turns out God loves my husband more than I do, and he provided the care my husband needed.” For Jean, and for all of us, healthy self-care requires us to turn away from our sin of self-sufficiency and to submit to the good plans of the Lord.
How We Can Help Caregivers with Self-Care
As we make caregivers aware of the essential need for self-care, we can also support them practically in their effort. We can sit with a friend’s loved one so she can get regular exercise, attend Bible study or caregiver support groups, run errands, or go to medical appointments. If skilled care is required, we can help search for that care, and we can ask if church or other ministries will financially support that care. Remembering that social isolation can be dangerous to mental and physical health, and that being outdoors can be beneficial, we might get one friend to stay with the caregiver’s loved one while we invite the caregiver on a nature walk or to an outdoor café. To help the caregiver get the good nutrition she needs, we can not only bring healthy meals, but we can also occasionally ask if the caregiver would like us to join her as she eats.
Caregivers enjoy a profound privilege as they tend to loved ones in their time of need. At the same time, they endure emotional, mental, and physical stress. As we encourage and help caregivers to get rest, exercise, good nutrition, fellowship, and medical care, we lead them to accept Jesus’ kind invitation, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
[i] AARP, “Caregiving in the US 2020 Report,” Caregiving.org, accessed May 24, 2021, https://www.caregiving.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/full-report-caregiving-in-the-united-states-01-21.pdf.
About the Author:
Elizabeth Turnage is a writer, story coach, and teacher. She founded Living Story to help people learn, live, and love the gospel. She is the author of The Waiting Room: 60 Meditations for Finding Peace & Hope in a Health Crisis and the Living Story Bible Study Series (P & R), Elizabeth offers gospel-centered resources at her blog, www.elizabethturnage.com.
Elizabeth has been married to orthopedic surgeon Kip Turnage for 36 years. They enjoy spending time with their children, Kirby and Amy Anne Turnage, Jackie and Matt Roelofs, Mary Elizabeth and Caleb Blake, and Robert Turnage. When they are not working or visiting their kids, they enjoy doting on their golden doodle, Rosie, the “best-dog-ever”!