Why caregiving is fuel for ‘church growth’

By the Rev. Dr. BENJAMIN PRATT
Author of The Guide for Caregivers

Benjamin Pratt cover Guide for Caregivers

CLICK the cover to visit the bookstore.

When I talk to groups of clergy and lay people, many of them are surprised to hear that expanding their caregiving ministries is in their own self interest. It’s true!

Most often, I’m talking to Christian groups, where “church growth” is always a No. 1 concern. But, the principles I share with groups (and in my book) are effective in fueling “congregational growth” in general. So take today’s column to heart, as well, if you are part of a synagogue, temple or mosque.

Here’s a prime example: On a recent Saturday morning, I helped to present a public forum drawing on my book, A Guide For Caregivers. A United Methodist congregation hosted the event and promoted it to the interfaith community and the general public. Weary caregivers from all parts of the community gratefully attended—and kept the interchange going more than an hour longer than planned! Tears and laughter flooded the room as we all shared our different stories.

Gratitude to the United Methodist church for hosting this event was effusive. Members of that congregation told me that they were getting involved in this kind of outreach because they realized they have been under-serving the needs of caregivers in their own community. They resolved to seek new and creative ways to support caregivers and care receivers.

Convince your congregation to get involved

For this special column, I invited friends to help me make the case that caregiving is, indeed, fuel for congregational growth.

ReadTheSpirit Editor DAVID CRUMM, this week, was the emcee of an annual one-day conference in southeast Michigan for religious and health-care leaders to hear from experts about the importance of collaborating on health and caregiving. One of the first questions David got from religious leaders was: How can we convince people that this is central to our religious mission?

United Methodist website on caregivers helping families of disabled veterans

CLICK this thumbnail image to visit a United Methodist website, where a recent article reports on the widespread needs of American families caring for disabled veterans. The denomination’s founder, John Wesley, taught that healthcare should be a high priority in congregational life.

David told the crowd …

“Anyone who tells you that our congregations aren’t in the business of health and wellness doesn’t know much about the history of the great Abrahamic faiths. Judaism and Islam have ancient codes for health and wellness. For Christians, Jesus spent more time on health concerns than almost any other issue. There wouldn’t be modern hospitals today without the mission of the Catholic church centuries ago. And United Methodists who hesitate to get involved? They should remember that their founder John Wesley (1703-1791) felt so strongly about meeting the health-care needs of parishioners that he wrote a medical handbook (published in 1747) to aid the countless families in his era who could not afford medical care.”

MARTIN DAVIS, a contributor to this online magazine and head of SLC: Sacred Language Communications, consults with congregations and often hears the objection: “I don’t have time for one more program!”

Martin sent these thoughts to share with you …

I hear that objection from overburdened church leaders, who are stressed and yet feel the pressure to add more ministries: feeding programs, energy programs, education programs, healthcare programs, music programs, outreach programs—and on and on. The problem comes when church leaders contemplate “programs” they must fund, support with volunteers and administer—rather than focusing on the core mission of their faith communities.

Health care is a prime example. The Parish Nursing movement is a good and powerful program that emerged in the 1970s that is today growing, especially among larger congregations with resources to hire parish nurses. But my message to congregations is: You don’t need to hire a parish nurse to provide care. Caregiving is as basic as “love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s that simple.

LDS Mormon website page on caregiving and disability resources

CLICK this thumbnail image to visit the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints website covering a wide range of disability concerns to help caregivers within the Mormon church. Within this website, individual pages look at common issues in various kinds of physical and mental health.

And, yes, energizing your congregation to take caregiving seriously also is complicated. That is … if you want to provide effective care and really touch lives in your community.

Over the years, I have been impressed by the way the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) incorporates many levels of caregiving into daily life in Mormon congregations. They accomplish this through several smart policies: 1. They keep their congregations (called wards) small, so that people get to know one another. 2. They stress that we are God’s hands and feet on earth as much as they stress the life to come. 3. They embrace the practice of genuinely caring for one’s neighbors, from regular home visits to assistance with job placement and even emergency stocks of food.

If a family member loses a job, the community knows and rallies to support that person—and their family—to right the ship. And if illness strikes, the community is there to provide whatever support is required. And, they do this without professional clergy or paid staff. They do this out of a commitment to one another born of a deep faith in God.

As I write this, you should know: I’m not Mormon myself and I’m not suggesting the LDS church is better than all others. But, I am suggesting that their orientation is solid: Faith in God animates action in this life, because we are the feet and hands of God on this earth.

Is caregiving fuel for “church growth”? Just look at the statistics on growth in the LDS church!

Care to read more?

KEEP IN TOUCH WITH WE ARE CAREGIVERS: Our online magazine regularly reports on caregiving issues, sharing ideas and inspiration from various authors and experts. Click on the link in the upper right corner for “updates by email” and be sure you are receiving our free email alerts to new stories. Among the past We Are Caregivers columns you’ll find useful:

BEST-SELLING AUTHORS URGE CONGREGATIONS TO GET INVOLVED: While you’re signing up for our email newsletters, be sure to get our weekly ReadTheSpirit newsletter, sent out each Monday afternoon. That way you won’t miss our trademark author interviews, which often touch on caregiving. Among our most popular author interviews on this subject:

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

 

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Changing the Tune at the ‘Organ Recital’

By THE REV. DR. BENJAMIN PRATT, author of ‘Guide for Caregivers.’

Pipe Organ consoleHelen, my mother-in-law, died seven years ago at age 94. One of my delightful memories of her was her chortles when she recounted the evening gathering of folks for dinner at her retirement home. Someone might share an interesting memory or event of the day. But most often each person would share an update on chronic ailments involving any number of body parts.

“We’re starting the Organ Recital,” Helen would laugh.

You might be chuckling, too, assuming that these recitals are limited to the aging, but I observe them among all groups.
Something in us wants to tell our stories. It is absolutely fascinating to me how the discussion starter dramatically changes the tone of an experience.

I’ve sat through my share of Organ Recitals, haven’t you? Sometimes it’s a healthy sharing of concerns in the forefront of our daily living. Of course, it works best if everyone gets to participate—and the listening is genuinely supportive rather than prone to advice.

But consider this, if you’d rather change the program in your group.

Tired of all that focus on organs? I’ve found that a single question tossed up in the group, like the opening coin toss at the start of a game, can have considerable effect. It can be as simple as asking about how the plants are doing in someone’s apartment, or a remark about flowers viewed through the window, what birds have been observed around the grounds—or who visited recently. This is the stuff that connects and binds us and dispels fear and isolation.

A close friend recently told me, “I got a circle of folks in my parents’ assisted-living home to start talking about Finnish saunas the other day. We had an old Finn in the circle and, before we knew it, we were rip roaring along about saunas, beloved trips, the woods, wood gathering, starting fires—on and on. We danced verbally around a crackling fire and formed community by sharing stories.”

Just yesterday a Home Depot employee came to our house to inspect some work. We ended up telling each other stories. He told me he was the only person of color in the school when, as a teenager, his family moved to Pittsburgh. One student constantly picked on him, and he finally confronted the bully, telling him to meet on the football field at lunchtime to settle this matter.

The bully was a member of the football team, and the captain of the team attempted to keep the “rumble” from happening. Students “from the other side of the tracks” gathered behind the one person of color while the football team supported the bully. A truce was reached without a fight when the bully, forced by my new acquaintance and his football buddies, got on his knees and apologized.

I was suddenly shaking hands and congratulating a man for his courage, a man I had only met 20 minutes earlier. We knew each other through that story. A bridge was built while standing on it.

Something deep in us wants to sit around the literal or verbal campfire or dinner table and tell stories or listen to others. We become members of the long train of story-telling families. We know ourselves and each other by our stories.

th Carrie Newcomer Quaker singer songwriterAs I was finishing this column, I discovered a kindred soul in singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer in a new ReadTheSpirit magazine interview. Talking about the power of personal stories, Carrie says:

“I love how we’re different, as people. In our whole country there’s no place like Ann Arbor, Michigan, there’s no place like Minneapolis, no place like Asheville, North Carolina—and there’s no place just like Bloomington, Indiana. Places are so rich and diverse.

“Yet, at the same time, everywhere I go—every single place I go—if I sing a song about love, about family, about kindness—simple human kindness—or if I sing a song about hope—and not Hallmark card hope but the kind of hope where you wake up in the morning and you get up and really do try to make the world a better place—then my song is immediately recognizable in any community where I’m singing all around this world.

While Organ Recitals have their place, perhaps there are ideas in this column that will help you change the program in your circle.

We all can start singing a wider range of tunes.

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The cry of the disabled caregiver: “I’m not a good patient!”

“I lay ill through several weeks, and the usual tenor of my life became like an old remembrance. But this was not the effect of time so much as of the change in all my habits made by the helplessness and inaction of a sick-room. My housekeeping duties, though at first it caused me great anxiety to think that they were unperformed, were soon as far off as the oldest of the old duties. … I had never known before how short life really was and into how small a space the mind can put it.”
Esther in Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

“Step 1 of learning to walk in the dark is to give up running the show. Next you sign a waiver that allows you to bump into some things that may frighten you at first.”
Barbara Brown Taylor in Learning to Walk in the Dark

By BENJAMIN PRATT,
author of Guide for Caregivers

Hair Pulling StressHave you lived through this reversal of roles? As a caregiver, you suddenly find yourself in the role of care-receiver!

You’ve probably raised the cry of the disabled caregiver: “I’m not a good patient!”

Read my story—and you’re likely to nod your head. It was a serious problem involving one of my feet that flipped the roles in our household: My wife Judith, who has occasional periods of disability, suddenly was caring for me! I freely admit that I’m a bad patient, primarily because of my im-patience. And, if I’m honest, my pride.

One day, when Judith slipped out of the house to buy a few groceries, I was nestled in my chair, reading. I was under strict orders from my doctor and my caregiver-wife to stay off my feet. So, as she departed, I was fixed in the chair, foot elevated to reduce the persistent swelling from my recent surgery and a four-month-long infection.

When she returned, she went about tucking goodies into the pantry and refrigerator. She slipped in a wry comment, “I see you had a visitor while I was gone. It was so nice of whomever to wash the few dishes in the sink.”

I sucked air, shuffled and hurumphed, saying, “I stood on one leg while I washed those dishes.”

“So, you hopped over here on one leg?” she retorted.

“I can’t stand, pun intended, not doing my share of housekeeping duties.”

Again she retorted with a wry grin, “Guess what? This is one more day you are not going to receive a smiley face sticker!”

This was one of the lighter, more playful exchanges over recent days. I have not transitioned well from being a caregiver to being a care receiver. I have been obstinate, willful, sometimes making her my enemy and not my friend. This switch of roles has forced me to examine my motivations and my behavior.

I reluctantly confess how proudly I identified as a caregiver. The role fit my persona and reinforced my sense of purpose and identity. I invested so much of myself in that role that I became too proud to receive care. I am facing the reality that I resisted letting another love and care for me. I have been boldly confronted with my stubbornness and resistance to love and grace. I have selfishly held on to being only a giver; resisted being a receiver. I definitely need to accept, even encourage, another’s gift of care.

I have been a patient a few times in my life but never for the duration nor gravity of this occasion. When I was in my early thirties, I broke both my arms at the same time and was totally helpless for a month. This four month stint of infection, out of control blood pressure, and finally a surgery (and possibly another ahead), undergirded with the reality of my age, has thrust the life questions of health, mobility, place of residence and purpose of life all center and forefront. Oh, and did I mention, aging comes at a most inconvenient time!

Over the years, I have used my imagination to foster empathy and compassion as a caregiver. It is clear to me now that my imagination has lacked what only living the experience of patient can teach. Imagination pictures that living with a wounded foot makes one or two vertical steps seem like a hill. Actually living with a wounded foot can make one step feel like stepping across the Grand Canyon.

Then, a week ago, journalist David Briggs—who reports on new research for the Association of Religion Data Archives—posted a column on a new study making this very point: “In a culture that prizes rugged individualism, and can interpret personal needs as a sign of weakness, many Americans find it is more acceptable to give than to receive. Yet the blessings appear to multiply when you are able to do both, according to new research. Americans who both meet the needs of others and are cared for in a nurturing community are much more likely to love and trust their neighbors.”

The research makes sense, doesn’t it?

Sitting where the other sits is surely the best way to foster our empathy and compassion. If only every preacher would sit in the pew; every jailer behind the bars; every wealthy person roam the streets at night; every white be a person of color; every man, a woman; every caregiver, a patient—we might become a more hospitable world.

I’m still a bad patient—but I am starting to feel more grateful for my experience. How about you? What’s your experience?

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‘Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?’

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

Have you had one of these conversations?

A colleague and I were talking about our parents a couple of weeks ago, swapping stories about our fathers. Hers has been declining for years, but a fresh episode was troubling her. My father passed away last year. As we talked, the stories began to sound like—well, they began to sound like things we shouldn’t even say out loud. We were talking honestly. If you’re a veteran caregiver, you can fill in the rest of this story. You know right away the troubling kinds of issues we were discussing.

Roz Chast book cover Cant We Talk About Something More Pleasant

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

It was a good talk! We laughed. We felt better.

As we were getting ready to leave, I said, “These are the things that no one talks about, but really should.”

Fast forward a week or so and I found myself listening to an interview with Roz Chast on NPR. She became the sole caretaker of her two elderly parents and she shares both the pain of this process and the laughter (and, yes, there is laugher, too). I immediately related to her new book: Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? A Memoir. That link takes you right to Amazon, but if you want to listen to Roz on NPR, you’ll find two different interviews: Here’s the All Things Considered interview; and here’s the Fresh Air interview.

I find myself thoroughly relating to much of Roz’s book. Told in a way that only a cartoonist can, I am getting great relief from enjoying another person’s tale of life in my shoes. In her memoir, Roz certainly dares to tell the often unspoken “rest of the story.”

So this week my recommendation is: Check it out and let us know what you think.

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We Can Sleep When We’re Dead (But should we wait?)

By PAUL HILE

I think about death a lot.

Perhaps more than I should. Certainly more than anyone else my age.

It’s not that I’m masochistic. I’m just realistic. I understand that death is unavoidable, always possible, always lurking in the shadows, even for someone my age.

Again, it’s not that I’m twisted—not at all—I’m just a young man who has lived, loved, and lost. I’ve lost friends to suicide and war. I’ve lost loved ones to old age and disease. My own wife and mother, as I’ve mentioned in earlier columns, have been weathered by chronic, painful and deadly diagnoses. Even I have already had one too many close calls for comfort. Three to be exact.

But I’ll spare you the details, because they’re unimportant. What is important is the time we have on this earth and doing something important and necessary and ultimately life giving. I think all Millennials are after that, in some way, shape or form. And in order to do that, we must be willing to rest. I realize that statement is counter-intuitive. This might be the hardest lesson I’ve learned as a caregiver, because when you’re made aware that life is fragile, that it doesn’t come with a gift receipt, there is an urgency to life that makes it hard to just stop and breathe.

Last week at We Are Caregivers, Ben Pratt wrote about the need for everyone to listen to their body—not just their mind—and take rest. Good and useful advice for anyone, of course, but it falls on deaf ears with Millennials.

Why?

Because most folks my age have not had to come to terms with their own mortality. Most folks my age still have gas in their tank. They’re young, they’re fresh, and they’re not sleeping.

We have a Super-person complex. We naively believe that we live with the same prescribed amount of years that spans several decades, and as a result we push the limits, we cross the line, and we do everything but take care of ourselves. Eventually, however, we wear down and come to a crashing halt. Take it from me—I pushed the limit, didn’t listen to my body and ended up falling asleep at the wheel only to awake while my car flipped end over end in a field.

We need rest.You_can_sleep_when_you're_dead!

Unfortunately, among young professionals trying to establish themselves in their careers, build families, and maintain social lives—sleep and rest become distant priorities. Not even priorities. More like an inconvenient necessity. I’ve even seen people hang posters that read: “You can sleep when you’re dead.” And then, of course, there’s Bon Jovi’s famous song “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.”

Not me. I’m in bed by 8:30.

Take it from someone who has literally crashed and burned. It’s not worth it. You need to rest. We all need to rest.

And if you don’t want to listen to me, listen to what scientists say about the latest in sleep research.

Imagine how much more efficient we could be if we were all fully rested. Imagine how much more kind we would be toward our fellow brothers and sisters. Would we treat each other with more respect? Would we show each other a little more grace? It’s a grandeur idea to say that we’ll sleep when we’re dead, but it’s not realistic.

And caregivers have to be realistic. We don’t have a choice.

So take heart and take rest. Whether you’re a young caregiver, or just a young person trying to get your bearings in this world, remember, we are all only human. No matter our age, no matter our circumstances, we all need rest.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Your body won’t lie. Your mind will!

By BENJAMIN PRATT,
Author of Guide for Caregivers and contributing columnist

A moment of stress by N Renaud via Wikimedia CommonsBoth of our daughters were ill at the same time recently, and they live 1000 miles apart. No, they are not twins. It was just coincidence. Nothing serious really—each complained of being worn out, tired, no energy, exhausted, congested, aching.

Our older daughter described it by saying, “I just needed to drop out for a few days and have an affair with my couch.”

Neither left her couch for three days.

Both are in their 40s, leading very different lives, yet they have a few things in common—endless work and constant stress from self-demanding standards. Confession time: They got it from their parents.

Our older daughter is a successful businesswoman who devotes untold hours to charity work. Among her many time commitments are serving as a regional board member for the American Red Cross—plus fund-raising and development for a local museum and the regional symphony and for a local child care center related to her church. She is also a key creative player in the annual book festival for her city.

Our younger daughter is a 4th Grade teacher in a Texas border city. She works 7 to 7 most school days and juggles the demands of her family, with children’s sports and school functions.

I talked briefly to both of them on their lie-down weekend. I, of course, had to drop in my fatherly advice: “Your body won’t lie. Your mind will! Your mind will tell you that you are able to do one more task. But at some point, your body will just shut down and demand a rest. I think that is what is going on at this moment. If you don’t listen to your body and treat it better it will get sick.”

They politely listened, but I strongly suspect they will not follow my sage advice much more than I did myself at their age.

When I teach caregivers I often take a bottle of water and hold it out at arm’s length and ask its weight.

The replies come back: “Six ounces?” “Twelve ounces?”

Then I ask, “If I hold it like this for an hour, how much does it weigh?”

Smiles begin to appear.

Finally I ask: “If I hold it for 24 hours? A week? A month? A year? Five years?”

I pause, as they are nodding with me, and I say: “Now you know the weight of stress!”

I have a good friend whose mother died recently. Nearly seven years ago she retired from a position she loved to become the caregiver of her mother whose physical and mental capacities were diminishing rapidly. Her mother was finally placed in a nursing home where my friend visited her daily. She continued to go each day, even when her mother only rarely recognized her or expressed any appreciation for the visits. As if this was not enough stress, her husband developed serious heart problems. My friend was a caregiver on two fronts.

Not long before her mother died, my friend began having problems talking. Her voice became raspy and could barely be heard above a whisper. She has had extensive tests which reveal no physical abnormalities in her throat or larynx.

Her doctor simply said, “Have all the muscles in your neck always been so tight?”

“No,” she replied, “Only in the recent years that I have been under a lot of stress as a caregiver.” She says that the voice lessons she is now taking are helping, but it will be a long recovery.

It is well for each of us caregivers to remember that our bodies won’t lie—our minds will.

Be tender toward yourself.

Listen to your body.

BENJAMIN PRATT’s recent columns include “Simple Gratitude for Simple Gifts” and “Did I Say Anything about Anger.”

Recovering in a bath Becky Wetherington via Wikimedia Commons

PHOTOS today are not Benjamin’s daughters. Both photos were contributed for public use via Wikimedia Commons. Top photo was taken by N. Renaud of Canada; bottom photo was taken by Becky Wetherington.

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On Mother’s Day: Make time for Mom to make time

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

On Mother’s Day, we like to turn Mom into Queen for a Day. We buy flowers, go to church, cook dinner and generally spoil Mom for one day. That is wonderful.

However, I have a different gift idea for Mother’s Day this year. It doesn’t cost any money, but I believe it could be considered invaluable to the Mom who receives it.

This year, what about giving Mom the gift of caring for herself?

Stay with me here … I regularly work with women who have cancer and, as a general rule, Moms are especially prone to neglecting themselves. Women feel guilty if they take time for themselves. This refusal to care for oneself can be elevated to the level of martyrdom—as if there is a prize for the greatest self sacrifice.

Tea CupWhile most Moms would never allow their children out the door in the morning without breakfast, many Moms don’t think twice about skipping breakfast—or other meals. Does that sound like a busy Mom or Grandma you know?

You can help change this pattern, this year for Mother’s Day. While many Moms won’t take time for themselves—they’re likely to do it if their family makes the time.

You know what what your Mom might like:

  • A regular meal “out” with family
  • A weekly time to work in the yard together
  • Assurance that she can make it to her church or club or community group—or even her hairdresser
  • An evening of playing cards
  • Simply a time to share tea or coffee and talk in an unhurried way
  • Maybe none of these; perhaps something else

This year on Mother’s Day, tell Mom that you care about her and that you would like her to spend some of her time in the next year doing things that would help her feel good. Tell her you want her to do this—and tell her you’ll help ensure this happens.

What I have come to know over the years is this: Taking time to care for myself makes me a better caregiver. It also helps to ensure that I will be able to care for years to come.

Happy Mother’s Day!

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