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Beyond Hallmark

"Beyond Hallmark" Continued...

Issue: "No way out," May 13, 2006

William Smith, president and CEO of Aging in America, a Brooklyn-based elder-care program, calls the faith community "the unsung hero of the informal support system."

"Churches and synagogues in our communities give purpose to older people's lives," he said. "They give older people a social and support network as they age into their twilight years."

First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, Calif., is one of several congregations WORLD found that sponsor caregiver support groups. At North Olmsted Assembly of God in Ohio, the congregation provides free meals and counseling for local hospice patients. And Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., offers DAYBreak, a respite-care program that offers caregivers some much-needed time off while offering activities for its elderly attendees.

But Dr. Koenig says the church universal can do better. A practicing Christian and author of Faith in the Future: Healthcare, Aging, and the Role of Religion, he notes that caregiving can be a marathon spiritual struggle that results in shame and guilt when caregivers' compassion, because they are human, fails them. Biblical confession is important in such cases, he said: "We admit we've blown it and ask God to forgive us so we can keep going."

A recent Johns Hopkins University study of positive adaptation to the caregiver role in cases of Alzheimer's and cancer revealed two main predictors of success: social support and religious faith.

"Religious faith is an enormous resource for caregivers taking care of loved ones," Dr. Koenig said. "The church should play a bigger role in the future as we have more and more elders cared for at home. . . . It's a mandate for the church of the 21st century."

The senior population explosion has given rise to what sociologists are calling the "sandwich generation," baby boomers and busters who now are caring both for their own children and for aging parents. About one in 10 U.S. households with two or more wage-earners ages 30 to 60 cares for both elders and children, according to a Portland State University study.

In Gail McQueen's case, it's a club sandwich of sorts.

Mrs. McQueen, 60, of Sunnyvale, Calif., cares for her dad, Frank Kaufmann, 89, and her mom, Herta, 91, a sturdy German immigrant who fled the Nazis in the 1940s with baby Gail secreted in a backpack.

Every day, she babysits her five-month-old granddaughter at her Sunnyvale home, where she is also caring for her husband, who is recovering from heart-valve replacement surgery. After a morning of bottles, diapers, snuggling, and heart medications, Mrs. McQueen tucks her granddaughter into a car seat and motors to Saratoga, often lugging a pot of homemade stew. She is usually joined by her daughter Bridget, 31, who has rented out her own home and moved in with the Kaufmanns to help care for them.

At the Saratoga house, she chats with her parents in German, orders their medications, fills their daily dosage vials, pays their bills, schedules doctor appointments, taxis to and from, fixes what needs fixing, curls her mother's hair, and takes her grocery shopping.

Mrs. Kaufmann used to have an uncanny knack, Mrs. McQueen said: "At the grocery store, she could tabulate the exact amount of the grocery bill in her head all the way down to the tax, then tell them what the total would be."

Now she has trouble seeing the groceries at all. Suffering from glaucoma, Mrs. Kaufmann sees the world through a narrow tunnel. She also has had cataract surgery, suffers from a slow-moving form of leukemia, and last year tumbled down a flight of stairs and broke her ankle.

"But she never complains," Mrs. McQueen said. "Every time someone asks her how she's feeling, she says, 'Oh, I'm fine; it's just my eyes.'"

Mrs. McQueen isn't complaining, either. She happily retired early from her position as a school secretary so that she could be with her family more. Her decision reflects a new reality unfolding in the workplace as employers realize the steady climb in the number of workers needing time off to care for aging parents.

A 2006 University of Indiana study found that once a woman becomes a caregiver, her likelihood of remaining in the workforce is reduced by half. Though the pace is slow, some companies now are adding employee benefits related to adult caregiving, such as flex-time, long-term care insurance, and unpaid family leave. For example, Prudential Financial Group subsidizes the cost to its employees of home health aides, recouping the expense by reducing absenteeism. Some state legislatures have enacted measures requiring employers to give workers time off above and beyond the federal Family Medical Leave Act.

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