God: The 24/7 Caregiver
The neurologist broke the unexpected news to me as compassionately as anyone could, but his brutal honesty hit me hard.
“Your mother has Alzheimer’s disease, with advancing dementia.” I sat thunderstruck as I listened to the diagnosis.
Some of the tests she had been asked to perform were embarrassingly simple. I gasped in disbelief when I saw her inability to handle basic short-term memory tests, like being told the words cat, door, moon and asked a few moments later to recount them in that order. But if asked about something that happened 50 to 60 years ago, she could give you a stunningly accurate account.
I cried later when I was alone because I knew that Alzheimer’s means the agonizingly slow death, not of the body, but of the mind. I felt heartbreak as I knew it would be my task, as her only child, to preside over her descent into oblivion should the disease follow its normal course.
To provide for her needs, we immediately moved her into an apartment in my city, 100 miles from her friends and home. In a matter of days, another health crisis occurred; and we tried unsuccessfully to have her live in our home. As her needs increased, we eventually moved her to a nearby assisted-living center. Three relocations in three months—packing and unpacking, loading and unloading—were like a recurring bad dream.
I Can’t Believe This!
I allowed my heart to believe my mother was untouchable by something like Alzheimer’s. I never doubted should would die; I just reasoned that life would never treat her this way. After all, she was a fun-loving, godly woman who had taught thousands of Oklahoma kids over a 45-year period and had taught Sunday school to age 87. Until he died, she was my dad’s lifelong sweetheart. Behind the naïve notion that God owes a Christian a better deal was my error of belief we can obligate God by earning his favor. (Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV)
In my head I knew better. We are all fallen people in a fallen world, trying to live in a broken system in which evil and the wrong choices of men seem to have the upper hand much of the time (Romans 3:23; 6:23).
Looking at life through the eyes of faith, I see that bad things happen to believers and unbelievers alike. They just do, and God isn’t to blame. A harsh dose of reality is all that is needed to blow away unrealistic and unbiblical expectations like mine.
Do I Own This?
I was startled by how quickly caregiving was thrust upon me by family necessity. The “day” that I thought was years away came. And stayed. I became one of more than 50 million Americans, many between ages 30 and 50, who provide some level of care for a family member or friend. Not that statistics matter. You are the caregiver. Almost 45 percent of us are men.
After the initial crisis subsides, and you settle into your new role, you begin to take over bits and pieces of the person’s life, and lose a corresponding amount of control over your own life. It starts in a deceptively simple way: paying bills, trips to the doctor, and so forth. But it continues until you are virtually responsible for your loved one’s life. You weren’t aware you signed on for all this. And there is no place to resign, not that you would. But the thought crosses your mind because you didn’t ask for any of this. Tragically, some shirk the role.
A provider’s role takes many shapes, depending on your relationship to the needy person for whom you assume responsibility. You may find yourself occupying the parent role with your own parent, as I have, while she becomes increasingly childlike. Or, you may face a different situation.
I’ll Do It but Not Own It
The caregiving role bullied its way into my already over-committed life. It’s normal to feel resentment toward such intrusions. I did, and then felt surprise and guilt that, as a Christian, I was capable of such feelings. Exhausting, prolonged caregiving has proved an embarrassing way of bring out the worst in me.
I first attempted to provide care by multi-tasking it along with everything else. It was with a glad heart and no resentment because I loved my mother, honored my father, and wanted to obey the commandment about parents (Exodus 20:12). But I carefully refused to “own” it. I would let this new role run parallel with my “real” life but hold it at bay. I foolishly reasoned that someday the role would end, and I could get back to my so-called “real” life in which I am a serious disciple and want very much to grow and please God.
I’ll Own It and Do It Myself
Because I refused to embrace caregiving, I slipped into handling it myself as a necessary duty. I acted as if I believe God and discipleship weren’t involved, as if this new role was unrelated to spiritual transformation.
Caregiving made such stressful demands on my time, emotional energy, and state of mind that I felt completely overwhelmed, as if being drowned by the person I was attempting to rescue. Emotions ricocheted off the walls of my heart like a bullet.
One week I jotted down every erratic emotion I felt as I drove away from each visit with my mother. I was startled by the crazy moods—almost twenty of them—I was trying to manage:
Grief. . .ongoing sorrow that Alzheimer’s was insidiously stealing her memories one by one, those wonderful souvenirs of yesterday.
Gratitude. . .to be the son of this incredibly gifted woman whose life has meant so much to so many.
Helplessness. . .that, as a lifelong “fixer” of things, I found myself facing something I couldn’t fix.
Anger. . .that there are cruel things like birth defects, cancer, and Alzheimer’s that destroy the people I love.
Intense love. . .resolve. . .depression. . .soaring hope. . .despair. . .loneliness. . .Attempting to provide care in my own strength just about sank me after a few months. You can already guess this drove me to cry out to God for help.
Okay, God. I’ll Do It if you’ll Help
Frederick Buechner wrote, “There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him. . .”
The Holy Spirit brought to my mind Scriptures to help me see that refusing to “own” caregiving was also denying God opportunity to be involved. In my prideful thinking, I was as shortsighted as Peter when he refused having his feet washed by Jesus. Peter protested, “No. You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” Peter repented, “Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” (John 13:8-9, NIV)
I began to see caregiving, not as an unwanted part of life, but as my life . . . as “real” as every other part, and of as much concern to God. Where did I get the idea God wouldn’t care about this part? Like Peter, I repented.
But God wasn’t content to merely “help” me. I’ve never heard God’s voice, but it was as if he was saying through the Scriptures: “I don’t want you to own this burden. I want to own it. Will you release it and let me be God? Will you exchange your failing strength for my unfailing strength? (Isaiah 40:31)
Okay, God. You Own It
Gary Thomas writes, “Life can call us into places where we feel as though we’re being poured out on behalf of others. If we don’t build a spirit of surrender and sacrifice, we’re liable to grow resentful and bitter during such seasons.”
To receive all the grace God wants to give us, we must surrender to him the “ownership” of burdens we become aware of. This does not mean we become passive, shirk responsibility, or fail those who depend on us. It does mean we let God rule and reign over our lives, and we draw the strength we need from him. Peter advised, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (I Peter 5:7, NIV).
As I care for my mother, one of the most delightful experiences of serendipity is happening. I am discovering God as my caregiver. . .the 24/7 kind. . .twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I sleep with a cell phone near my pillow, on call 24/7. I do not face this task alone—God is listening for my call, 24/7.
Providing care is becoming more strenuous as the months pass. But every part of this ordeal is an opportunity, a door, through which I can receive massive doses of grace. The endless trips to the doctor and the twice-daily trips to the care facility are just more ways God demonstrates his wonderful care of me.
Am I grieving? God has Psalm 23 for my weary heart.
Am I despairing? He uses my Christian brothers, Jim and John, to encourage me when we meet each week (2 Corinthians 1:4).
The past months have brought two precious truths into my life:
First, with the possible exception of parenting, caregiving is the most spiritually formative experience in my Christian journey thus far. Character and virtue are not best formed in the calm and ease of life, but rather in life’s great difficulties and struggles in which we must contend. I have found no better verse to describe this principle than Romans 5:3 (NIV): “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
Caregiving became a sacred experience when I realized I needed care from God as much as my mother needed my care. I finally “got it” that God wants to transform me as I face these difficulties. If we will cooperate with him, God will use any new role or difficult life situation we face to bring about our spiritual transformation.
The second insight comes from watching my mother become more innocent, childlike, and dependent on me with advancing age. It’s as if God is whispering in my ear, “Don’t you get it, Don? That’s exactly how I want you to relate to me.”
“Let the little children come to me. . .the kingdom of God belongs to such as thee” (Luke 18:16, NIV).
Don M. Hull © 2004, 2015