Academic journal article Generations

The Spiritual Gifts - and Burdens - of Family Caregiving

Academic journal article Generations

The Spiritual Gifts - and Burdens - of Family Caregiving

Article excerpt

Universally, we are exhorted to act in service to others.

"Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go, I will go ... "

Ruth 1:16 The Bible

"And what is right aspiration? The aspiration toward renunciation ... toward benevolence ... toward kindness."

Buddha, The Pali Text

Every religious tradition, virtually every spiritual perspective, and almost all sacred writings strongly uphold the values of service and self-sacrifice. Secular writings, from the great philosophers to the policies of fraternal organizations to the marketing slogans of nonprofit organizations, all support service to others. Witness, for example, the slogan of die Urban Coalition, "Give a Damn," or a motto of Big Brothers and Big Sisters, "You never stand so tall as when you stoop to help a child" Universally, we are exhorted to act in service to others.

Provision of service is especially important when one's own family members are die ones in need. The ancient laws all had provisions punishing those who abandoned dieir parents. The earliest traditions supported obligations to one's kin. The Old Testament extols Ruth's willingness to care for Naomi, her aging mother-in-law, as a model of familial piety. Eastern spiritual traditions recount similar stories.

This article acknowledges the gifts of caregiving and recognizes die special spiritual burdens that may accompany, and at times even displace, diose rewards. For some individuals, caregiving can offer deep spiritual rewards and satisfaction. Yet, caregiving can be a burden that drains a person not only physically and psychologically but spiritually as well. That burden can be exacerbated by an overemphasis on the spiritual rewards of caregiving that ignores die sacrifices it entails. However, counselors and others can ofter the types of spiritual support that caregivers require as they struggle with the daily difficulties of caregiving and the spiritual issues that caregiving raises.


Although the terms spirituality and religion are often used interchangeably, important distinctions exist between the two. For this article's purposes, Miller's (1994) definition seems most appropriate: "Spirituality relates to our souls. It involves that deep inner essence of who we are. It is an openness to the possibility that the soul within each of us is somehow related to the Soul of all mat is." Miller reminds us that religion, while it draws from spirituality, remains only a part of spirituality for most people: "Spirituality is die act of looking for meaning in die very deepest sense, and looking for it in the way diat is most audientically ours. . . . While spirituality is necessarily very personal, religion is more communal.

Religion says, 'Here's a way for you to act when you come together as a group, and here's a way for you to behave when you're apart.' ... [R]eligion is a natural outgrowth of spirituality;"

In summary, Miller's definition affirms that while not everyone is religious, in the sense of sharing a communal faith system, everyone is spiritual. It is in the context of authentic, personal meaning that the spiritual gifts of caregiving can best be denned.


If spirituality relates to the ability to achieve a sense of personal, authentic meaning, then one of the most significant spiritual gifts of caregiving is that it does give meaning to life. For some individuals the self-sacrifice that caregiving entails offers a deep sense of personal fulfillment. It demonstrates a persistent ability to transcend self-to sacrifice for another without regard to one's own needs. As such it reaffirms and supports one's own sense of self, thereby increasing self-esteem. For example, one woman, a longtime foster parent, began to care for children who were bom Hiv- positive. In the very early years of the Hrv-AiDS epidemic, these children often had multiple problems such as developmental delays and fetal drug syndromes. …

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