Caregivers United: Navigating the Bittersweet Years

By Neil Earle

Gail Sheehy popularized the study of aging.

John knew something was wrong when he could smell the plastic burning. His elderly parents, both in their early 90s, had left the kettle heating and it was threatening to start a fire.

That’s when it hit John harder than ever that his parents might no longer be able to look after themselves, in their own house which they cherished, and where they had spent more than sixty years together helping produce a doctor, a minister and a teacher along the way.

Basics for Caregivers

1. “Age-proof” the house which means grab bars in showers, non-skid mats, or a shower chair. Most accidents take place in the bathroom so be always thinking. Do I have corner shelf for easier access to essentials? Would a hand-held shower head work better? Sweat the small stuff.

2. Hallways and stair alert. Past age 60 we need 15 times more light than at age 10. Brighten up hallways with nightlights and LEDs. Handrails are almost a must and for getting out of bed.

3. Remove loose rugs, cords and wires and move larger furniture items closer to the walls to create more walkway space.

4. Create a mini command center in the bedroom with telephone, clock and lamps convenient and accessible. There’s more on all this at’s Caregiving Resource Center (Tolucca Times, January 16, 2013). Counsel is available – let’s use it.

A few months later his sister – now the primary caregiver – called up saying it looked like mom and dad had to soon be moved into a home, with all that that entailed. A matter of weeks later his mother died at age 92, “in a good old age” as it says about Abraham (Genesis 25:8) “full of years.”

An Ageing Society

This bittersweet tale is becoming more and more common in our society. According to the National center for Caregiving nearly 66 million people – 29% of the adult population – are providing care to someone who is ill, disabled or aged. All across North America, this is presenting many in the Baby Boomer generation (born 1946-1964) with challenges and demands no one expected.

Theme – How age patterns have shifted even since the 1970s.

Fortunately, there is help and counsel available for those at-home caregivers who are part of what has been called “the Sandwich Generation.” Ageism is creeping near the top of society’s consciousness. Gail Sheehy, student of the Life Cycle, reported in New Passages some time back that 100 year-olds are the fastest growing age group. The Canadian Community Health Survey sponsored by the Public Health Agency of Canada, for example, showed that citizens aged 100 or more increased 50% between 1996 and 2006 and will triple by 2031. Society’s new agenda is summarized by a government study: “Home care and home support is what [many] want when their health makes it difficult for them to manage daily life.”

A Royal Canadian Legion report sharpened the issue, concluding that “the biggest challenge facing Canadians over 75 is bridging the gap between independent residential living and moving to a care facility.” In the United States, the AARP mentioned that 61% of caregivers who are 50-plus are working.

Sometimes governments and community agencies view an aging population as a great resource to tap into in terms of voluntarism and civic outreach. “Age norms have shifted,” says author Gail Sheehy. People such as John’s sister, self-consciously bearing responsibility for parents determined to stay at home in spite of obvious concerns, need to now that much fine research is now available which, when blended with Biblical principles, can offer help and light for concerned and sometimes stressed caregivers.

A Biblical Compendium

The Bible, as might be expected, spans the gamut on aging. Coming from the Author of the human life cycle very much aware of its blessings and stresses, the Good Book counsels everything from “respecting the hoary head” to leaving an inheritance for one’s grandchildren (Proverbs 13:22). It moves from a heartfelt plea for help and strength in one’s declining years (Psalm 71:9) to a caution against spiritual decline in the advanced state (1 Kings 11:4).

Erik Erikson – a Swedish psychologist who helped pioneered the systematic study of aging.

Aging is natural. One of the not-so obvious points in the Bible is that it is perfectly fine for elders to cut back on responsibilities as one ages. Even King David was counseled not to lead Israel to war as he grew older (2 Samuel 21:17) and Levites who did the heavy lifting were able to take it easier after age 50 (Numbers 4:3). So we should not begrudge our parents and grandparents the extra time they are enjoying. This is good to remember because disputes about retirement and social security viability are the flashpoint of intense and bitter debates today. Some elderly hear these debates and wonder where it is all going to lead. This, too, is a stressor.

Another factor of people living longer is the incidence of far more debilitating diseases added to major advances in aging. The majority of our senior citizens have at least one chronic disease. One retiree in his seventies calls it “the whole doctor/dentist round” – not life-threatening but something that takes up more and more time. This can make things more complicated for at-home caregivers.

All this leads to a common first principle in navigating the Sandwich Generation. It’s a word Christians know about already – empathy! Empathy means putting yourself in the place of another person. No matter how tedious sometimes the challenge, we know we can identify with our mom, dad and grandpa or grandma more than anyone else.

“Ageing isn’t for sissies,” says Pastor Curtis May. “Sometimes you feel you are getting trapped in your own body and it is frightening to see your basic skills unable to function,” adds Roger, who still lives a very active life as a publisher and editor. “My own dear father told me this: You can’t help but wonder sometimes if people are laughing at you or if they are talking about you behind your back. You can’t hear everything as well as you used to so …you often suspect the worst. Even from your kids.”

Well put. About 2500 years ago a brilliant writer sketched an eloquent word picture on aging. It’s found in Ecclesiastes 12:

“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the time of trouble comes (see, this is honest) and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I see no purpose in them.’ Remember him before the sun and light give place to darkness, before the moon and the stars grow dim (vision problems), and the clouds return with the rain (memory loss) – when the guardians of the house tremble (the arms) and the strong men stoop (the legs, when the grinders cease because they are few…when the noise of the mill is low, when the chirping of the sparrow grows faint (hearing declines) and the songbirds fall silent; when men are afraid of a steep place and the street is full of terrors (a walker is needed), when the blossom whitens on the almond tree and the grasshopper is a burden and desire fails” (Ecclesiastes 12:1-5, NEB and NAV).

Don’t Do It Alone

This gently humorous but poignant passage strikes an exemplary mood. It is a call for sympathy for those passing through to the climax of the life cycle – as we all must. God obviously pities the elderly and he undoubtedly has his own purposes in all stages of our life (Psalm 103:13-17). Hollywood actor Diane Keaton refuses to have a face lift, she says, because “she wants to bear testimony to aging.” This is a rare remark today.

The visible process of slow decline affecting our loved ones awakens compassion and sympathy in serious Christians. This is good because as children of aging and sometimes demanding parents we will need all the sympathy and patience and compassion we can muster. As Dr. Samuel Johnson said, we need reminding more than instruction and in this situation we must remember that empathy beats condemnation every time.

This leads directly to Principle Number Two – seeking wise counsel.

We mustn’t try to navigate this important stage of life by ourselves. For starters, other family members can form a circle of caring support for the front line caregivers. Sometimes, simply because of the internal awareness of life receding before them, the elderly and the afflicted can show classic defensive/aggressive reactions. Quite often it’s like you’re dealing with teenagers again. Older people can sometimes act so unreasonably and so aggressively. In part we have to see this cantankerousness as a last remaining attempt to assert simple control over their lives. That elderly man with the walker down the street may have flown 32 bombing missions in World War Two and now younger people he doesn’t know are doing things to him, poking and prodding him with needles, examining him at all hours, and wheeling him about from place to place.

The wise seniors learn to accept their reduced and dependent status but sometimes the elderly can mount a real battle of wills against people who are trying to help.

Professional caregivers can be a real blessing at such times. These can be our “angels unawares.” It can be expensive so try community agencies or some of the larger churches which have visitation programs. One writer friend I know took on the task of helping a 93-year-old man write his biography. The trick was that this extremely independent and successful “lone wolf type” businessman would not let the author take his most meaningful papers and documents home with him. As the writer put it: “I felt I was confronting the dragon in the children’s tales who was guarding a cave full of treasure.”

For the writer it meant sitting in the client’s office and transcribing many quotes and articles by hand. This tedious practice added immensely to the workload. But, in the end, it built trust and forged a deep friendship. The job got done. Yes, sometimes you have to stoop to conquer. It’s almost like Ecclesiastes 10:4 though in a slightly different context, “If a ruler’s anger rises against you, do not leave your post; calmness can lay great errors to rest.”

By now, it is obvious what the third principle will be.

A Rugged Faith

“Behold the proud, his soul is not upright in him; But the just shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4).

It can be very humbling indeed emptying bed pans, changing soiled sheets or wiping dribble from a parent or senior citizen you have taken out to a restaurant. But – here’s where a rugged and lively faith pays dividends. Sometimes we just have to take a deep breath and plough through the worst. You have to psyche yourself ahead of time: “This will be tough but I can do this.” Going to pick up a beloved senior can take 40 minutes just waiting for the poor lady to find her handbag or to change her blouse two or three times but…this is what we are called to as caregivers.

I’ll never forget how exasperating it was to find the “ideal seat” for two advanced seniors at a restaurant and the hard time they gave the waiters and staff. At the end I thanked a young waiter for his patience and tact and for valiantly enduring no small measure of abuse. His answer shocked and inspired. “Well, that’s where we’re all headed, so we’d better be nice to those people now.” Yes, angels unawares.

Our own personal reserves of patience, good will and optimism will soon run down the longer we tarry in the Sandwich Generation. But God’s promises are a great resource at such times: “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:28-31).

There it is. We cannot tackle this task of helping out aged parents and friends navigate the life cycle on our own strength. One friend tells me: “I have to take a deep breath and tell myself, yes, this is going to be work, this is going to be stressful, but one day – one day way too soon – I’ll be saying goodbye to them and I’ll be forever glad I took the high road today.”

That’s good advice to all of us no matter where we are along life’s journey. Empathy, counsel, faith – these watchwords apply here as much as to any situation the committed Christian will encounter. May God be with us as we navigate this road successfully and wisely.