by Barbara Harper
My mother-in-law’s health declined rapidly in the nursing home until she reached 90 pounds and became barely responsive. We brought her home to die among loved ones.
But she responded to one-on-one care, gained weight, and became clear-headed when we took her off narcotics. She has been with us for almost five years now. She is what the therapists call a “total assist”: she can’t walk, feed herself, go to the bathroom on her own, or turn herself in bed. She sleeps 20 or more hours a day and rarely speaks.
We’ve experienced a range of emotions during carergiving. We’re truly happy that she responded well, that she is in a place she prefers, and that we can be with her more. We love her and want the best for her. We’re glad to pay back a fraction of the care she has displayed for others.
But we wrestle with negative emotions as well. Sadness from her decline, the loss of the person we knew, the knowledge that she’s going to get worse, planning funeral arrangements. Frustration when she doesn’t want to eat a carefully prepared meal, when the aide can’t come, or when family members don’t keep in touch. Weariness over the everyday duties and weight of responsibility. Pressure from the needs of family, work, finances, and other obligations.
But the one I’ve wrestled with the most is resentment and its accompanying guilt.
Though I want my mother-in-law to be well-cared for, I have never been good with or felt inclined to the hands-on type of caregiving she is in need of now. I find myself thrust in a role for which I don’t feel gifted.
My mother-in-law’s needs and the expense of a trained aide means we’re tied down. My husband and I only go out for dinner two or three times a year. We’ve had to set aside social functions, personal projects, and even ministries. When my grandson spent months in the NICU, we were limited in how much we could be with and help my son and daughter-in-law. We could never go together to visit them. We know God used it to help them depend on Him, but we still wish we could have been more available. (My grandson is four now and doing great, despite his shaky early beginning).
Though I love and miss our kids, I had my own plans for the empty nest years: writing that book, sewing up that fabric stash, enjoying all my newfound free time.
While I appreciate hospice and caregiver services, I feel my introvert sanctuary has been invaded by so many people coming through my home. Sometimes they don’t call before they come or don’t arrive when planned, disrupting schedules.
For my own mental health and spiritual peace, I’ve searched for ways to combat resentment. I say “combat” rather than “overcome” because, although I’d like to repent of my bad attitude one time and banish it forever, I’ve found I have to go over these things periodically. I guess that is part of living with a selfish sinful nature and regularly needing to renew my mind.
Everything seems worse if I’m sleep-deprived or not eating right, so I take care with my health. My husband and I feel free to talk honestly with each other. He’s not offended that I get frustrated sometimes. I talk to friends who have cared for loved ones, and knowing that they understand helps immensely. Occasionally, we’ll hire someone to stay with my mother-in-law so my husband and I can have an outing.
I remind myself that caring for a loved one at home was the norm before assisted living facilities and nursing homes became widespread. Some of my friends’ parents have been bitter, uncooperative, even combative at the end of their lives. Thankfully, we haven’t faced this.
But what helps me most is God’s Word. Though we need to rely on God’s help, grace, and strength even for those areas where we feel He has gifted us, there’s nothing like being totally out of our element to make us lean on Him and plead for His enabling like never before. God promises His strength in our weakness. He provides, not in one fell swoop of making us “feel” qualified, but in the day-by-day ministrations from Him through us. I need to serve and love others in the way they most need it, not in the way I am comfortable showing it.
The Bible reminds me that I belong to Him, and my home, time, schedule, plans, and dreams are His. Scripture is replete with instructions to aid family, widows, the weak and helpless. It tells me to treat others the way I would want to be treated. My mother-in-law is worthy of loving care not just because I am related to her and because she has served her family well, but because she is God’s child made in His image. Our treatment of others is in essence our treatment of Him. Even Jesus performed the duties of a servant. I’m to serve Him by serving others.
One friend who cared for her mother-in-law for years shared that God sometimes leaves our older loved ones here not so much for what He is doing in their lives, but what He is doing in ours through caring for them. Perhaps the biggest result of caregiving has been God showing me my innate selfishness, my need for repentance, and teaching me to love unconditionally.
Sometimes just before going into my mother-in-law’s room, I pray that I might be “strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness” (Colossians 1:9-13 KJV). I need His strength, longsuffering, and patience, He has the “glorious power” to give it. He can help me to go beyond just acting out of duty, but can enable me to serve with joy. I also frequently pray that He will give me a more loving, unselfish heart.
Caregiving is God’s will for us for now. Caregiving isn’t a hindrance to our ministry: it is our ministry, and it’s just as important as writing a book, preaching a sermon, or singing a solo. Reminding myself of this helps me look away from my own dreams and desires and lean on God for His promised grace, strength, and patience, resting in this truth: “For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints” (Hebrews 6:10 ESV).
Currently living in the Knoxville area, Barbara Harper has been married for 38 years to a wonderful man who makes her laugh and overlooks her foibles and a stay-at-home mom to three sons, now adults. In recent years a beautiful daughter-in-law and then an adorable grandson have been added to the family, and an ailing mother-in-law has been brought home. She has been blogging for 12 years about family, books, funny or interesting observations, and things God has been teaching her at Stray Thoughts (https://barbarah.wordpress.co
Barbara, I so appreciate the way you have turned this challenge into a true spiritual discipline, and you are using all the available tools to “combat” (great word choice!) the negative feelings that go with being so completely tied down and at the mercy of people who come and go. This in-home care model was what I had envisioned for my mother, but she would not consent to having anyone come into her life other than me and my family. Like you, I’m not gifted or especially competent with that hands-on caregiving, so I appreciate your humble submission to God’s assignment for this season.
Blessings to you! So glad that you have shared your life and your story here in this especially welcoming community.
Thanks so much, Michele. Finding these tools grew out of desperation: I couldn’t live with this continual feeling of resentment and I knew it didn’t honor the Lord. God is gracious to be patient with me no matter how many times I come to Him with these same issues. One lady I knew only spoke positively about her caregiver experience – either she was a much better person than I am, or she was afraid she would dishonor her mother-in-law if she hinted at any problems. But it helps me to know that others struggle in these same areas. I’ve been blessed by what you have written about caregiving as well.
“Caregiving isn’t a hindrance to our ministry: it is our ministry, and it’s just as important as writing a book, preaching a sermon, or singing a solo. Reminding myself of this helps me look away from my own dreams and desires and lean on God…” Oh, Barbara, I can so identify with you. We had my mother-in-law for a time when all my 7 kids were still at home though a couple of them were adults at the time. Then with my mom who wouldn’t live with us but was in assisted living, but it took a lot of my time to help her along with having a son with muscular dystrophy, who also needed help. I have had feelings of resentment and have to go to God to remind me that I am where He wants me to be and He will give me strength and there is blessing, too, in serving. Blessings to you, Barbara!
Barbara, thank you for your open honesty. I appreciate your describing your limitations and God’s sufficient grace. How beautiful it is that you’ve come to see your caregiving as your ministry.
Thank you, Debby. I have to purposefully set my mind that way – that caregiving is my ministry – often, sometimes several days in a row. Thankfully God’s mercies are “new every morning.”
There is NOTHING easy about being a caregiver for an aging parent or relative! Because I was the “nurse” in the family it seemed that I had the “opportunity” to provide care for several relatives through the years. When my mother-in-law was with us (only 6 months) I was so physically and mentally drained. We still had high school age kids at home. Grandma had to stay in our daughter’s room (she moved to a different part of the house and had to give up some privacy and then had to move back into the room where her grandma had passed away). We were up through the night providing care and I became physically exhausted. I asked God for strength to get through this and I was given a special measure of physical strength that I did not know was possible.
You will never regret the care you have provided and the time and effort put forth. When the time comes, you will especially enjoy and appreciate the time with your husband, children and grandkids! Praying today that you will be able to see all of the special graces God is giving to you to get through this time in your lives!
Thank you, Denise. It helps so much to hear from others who have been there. I’ve often thought of people in the Bible who were told to do exactly what they couldn’t do, like the lame man who was asked to rise and walk or the man with the withered hand who was told to stretch his hand out. Yet when they obeyed Jesus’ command, they could do what they hadn’t been able to do before, by His grace and power. I lean on that thought a lot.
I’m really touched by what your friend said. God is doing something in our lives when we care for others.
“Though I love and miss our kids, I had my own plans for the empty nest years: writing that book, sewing up that fabric stash, enjoying all my newfound free time.”
I just read something this morning…something like, “When our life is going according to our plans, maybe it is going according to God’s plans.” You could write a book about caregiving…or, well I don’t know. But you sound like a very compassionate, kind person and you are a blessing to your family.
Thanks so much, Sandi. My husband has often said we should write a book about our journey with his mom through assisted living and a nursing home and then our home. We did it backwards from the usual process. There is a certain amount of caregiving involved even when a loved one is in a facility – we discovered not everyone who is supposed to be trained in those places knows what they are doing, and the residents there really need someone to advocate for them.
I agree with that statement about God’s plans. Ultimately His are best.
I really appreciate this post. This is reality, and it can be very hard. Thanks for being honest about the hard yet still showing us that there’s blessing and real joy in faithfully fulfilling the tasks God’s set before us.
Thank you, Jeannie. I love the way you summed it up – that even in hard things God’s blessing and joy are abundant.
I have a lot to say on this subject, I watched it take a toll on my own mother. When family members can’t or won’t pitch in, it is hard, and even foster care or letting relatives move in. I have seen the entitlement attitude like they are in a hotel and you the maid. My generous mother has finally been able to put her foot down, the Lord has begun to give her grace and rest. I really think this is where the church as a whole should step up with better run nursing homes and places to keep foster children until they can be reunited with their parents or adopted. No matter the person’s condition, although combat is harder, the caregiver needs a break,everyday, and I don’t think when you do your best you should feel guilt.
You’re right, caregivers shouldn’t feel guilty for needing a break.
Beautifully articulated, Barbara! Your words capture what many caregivers must feel. I continue to admire you for taking such loving care of your m-i-l. It is an amazing and selfless ministry. “Caregiving isn’t a hindrance to our ministry: it is our ministry, and it’s just as important as writing a book, preaching a sermon, or singing a solo. ” Indeed!
Thanks so much, Lisa. I learned a lot from your posts about your parents, especially your mom.
So well said, Barbara. I am in awe of you! I hadn’t realized your MIL needed quite that much care. Wow. I have a friend who cared for her husband through a year-long final illness. I went to lunch with her once and week to give her a bit of time out of the house, and I heard first-hand each week how frustrated she felt. I can relate too to how hard caregiving would be as an introvert, since I am one also. I am praising God for the way He’s working through you both to help your MIL and to help all of us who could easily be in similar situations someday, through your wise advice. Thank you!
Thank you, Susan. That was such a blessing for your friend – a bit of time away and a listening ear. Sometimes when people ask in passing how we’re doing or how my mother-in-law is, we just say “Fine.” But when someone asks as if they really want to know, it’s a real release of pressure to share.
Thanks for sharing.
You’re welcome – and thanks for reading.
Barbara, thanks for expressing in honest yet respectful words what this season is like for you, for us. It’s a bittersweet time and yet I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’m continuing to learn to live with the exhausting sadness of seeing my mother suffer. I’m learning His compassion truly are new every morning.
Great is His faithfulness …
Bittersweet is a good word for this season. Blessings to you and your dear mom.
Barbara, Thank you so much for sharing your heart and soul and being vulnerable. It is definitely a bittersweet season. I felt some guilt over having to put our dad in a nursing home because he could no longer do stairs, and was wandering all over the woods. (he lived in a little attached apt at my sister’s and brother in law’s because they have a one story home AND because neither of them work outside the home so could be with him). well, he declined quickly with dementia brought on by deep grief over my mom’s sudden death and the state police found him one day wandering on a major road! So the decision was made. But we had to come to grips with the fact that after much thought and prayer, this option was in God’s plan for him. He loved it there!! I know it’s not the same as having a senior in your home….you are dealing with a lot more stress. It’s just different stress. But the whole guilt thing is something I can totally relate to. God gives all of us different paths to walk and for now you are walking this one. God bless you and thank you for baring your heart. It’s very encouraging to read about sisters in Christ and what God is doing.
Thank you, Faith. My mother-in-law was in assisted living and a nursing home before she came to our home, and you’re right, it’s a different kind of stress and guilt, but there’s still stress and guilt. They still need a certain amount of caregiving even if they are in a facility, and they definitely need someone to advocate for them. My grandfather actually loved the nursing home. He had always been gregarious, and he was able to be involved in some activities, which he loved. But his children still felt guilty that he had to be there. As I have talked with other caregivers, there seems to be guilt no matter what we do. But like you say, if we’re following the path we believe God led us to, we shouldn’t feel guilty – we can trust Him for them as well as for our sakes.