A Resource for Caregiving (and Aging Well)
Many of us have been in situations where we’ve had to provide care for others, whether for children or for aging parents. Or we’ve been on the receiving end, when we’ve been ill or depressed. All of us as we get older will have to eventually contend with the possibility that we may become dependent on others’ care more than we would like. This is not an easy experience, and I know it personally as my family has been in a caregiving situation for the past year. Fortunately, I’ve found a helpful resource called A Spirituality of Caregiving by Henri Nouwen that has really helped me understand the emotional realities of weakness in myself and others.
Nouwen writes about the challenges of being a caregiver, when we recognize we cannot always cure the pain or problem of the person we love:
“When I reflect on my own life, I realize that the moments of greatest comfort and consolation were moments when someone said, ‘I cannot take your pain away, I cannot offer a solution to your problem, but I can promise you that I won’t leave you alone and will hold onto you as long and as well as I can.’ There is much grief and pain in our lives, but what a blessing it is when we do not have to live our grief and pain alone. That is the gift of compassion.”
He also writes about how hard it is to be the one receiving care:
“It is embarrassing to be exposed in weakness and to need help. Having managed their own lives so easily for so long for both themselves and others, those who are ill or weak may find it humiliating to have to receive care and ask someone else to help them, especially if the one asked is already busy and occupied with important matters.
“Another very real sorrow for those receiving care is that it is not easy to wait — sometimes in pain — for someone to do for them what they can no longer do for themselves… In other words, it is miserable for them to feel that they are the powerless one in the carer/cared-for relationship.
“Most people, plunged into this world of receiving care, would say it is so difficult to let go, admit to needing help, and make the long and difficult passage into accepting to be beloved while in a weakened condition. It is only with much time and with loving care that they may be able to come to a new understanding of their blessedness and to realize that there is a gift awaiting them in times of sickness. Despite having to depend more on people who have to care for them because they are physically weak, they may experience becoming fruitful in their very weakness. For example, by gratefully receiving our care they may be revealing something to us that we didn’t know about ourselves — our own gifts of beauty, tenderness, and loving service. Therefore our compassionate caring must always include empathetic awareness of the inner suffering and unique blessedness of those to whom we offer care.”
Nouwen writes out of his own experience, having cared for the mentally and physically handicapped during many of his later years in life. He shares about how many of the weakest people in his life had the most profound impact on him. They taught him lessons he never would have imagined or experienced through his earlier career as a professor and speaker.
I was talking to a friend the other day about the grief of losing our physical abilities, and having to embrace so many demanding responsibilities as we grow older. It’s easy to think, “it’s all downhill from here!” But as I’m learning what it means to lead in weakness, every day I come closer to seeing the blessedness that can come as we grow older and weaker. We learn to love not just by doing or proving ourselves, but by appreciating and empowering others. In some ways, we have the opportunity to return to the purity of the love we received when we were children, before we were able to earn or deserve anything at all. We can embrace the most important truth that we are loved unconditionally.
There’s a Bible verse that reads, “though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). I like to think that a life following Jesus gets better as we grow older! And I’m starting to see how and why that can be.
I highly recommend A Spirituality of Caregiving. It’s a short read, but has a lot of wisdom for the practical realities we face in caregiving, and a helpful perspective on weakness as we all contend with the challenges and blessings of growing older.
Here are all parts of this series on “Leading in Weakness”: