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Caregivers and Aging


Most of us in the helping profession (clergy, medicine, education, counseling) choose our profession with a sense of calling, a desire to serve others, to fulfill the Great Commission. Bill Moyers, noted journalist, author and former minister, said, "I once felt God calling me into the ministry. Turns out it was a wrong number." We feel a pull to take our gifts and make ourselves an instrument of service and healing in a world of suffering. Given that sense of calling, we at times find ourselves caught in the stark contradiction between our hearts and the reality of life.

Ironically, many caregivers are "blessed" to have a front row seat on suffering, to life's greatest dramas, to see kids grow and become educated and to see people healed. For the clergy in the "wedding and deading business," we see people through many of life's stages. Many of us have a special calling to providing counsel to the aging.

Caring for the aging brings added exposure to pain, suffering and death. How many funerals have you attended in recent years? This is exacerbated when we attend or officiate at funerals for people near our own age, classmates, friends with whom we grew up, parishioners, and family members.

At times, the caregiver becomes fatigued by the constant exposure to pain. Somehow, over time, the joy of what we do eludes us. It is like we were invited to a great banquet and sometime during the meal we realize that we're eating grass, with an accompanying feeling of dryness and tiredness.

If you have ever said the following (or similar) words to yourself, you are not alone: "Hey, this is not what I wanted, not what brought me into my career. I spend all my time talking to people in suffering and pain. At times it does not feel as if any amount of compensation is enough for all that it takes out of me. When I do get to do what I felt called to do, I feel compassion fatigue. I gave at the office. I go home with nothing left to give to my family, let alone myself."

By now, many of us are at the summit of our career and we might feel tired. "How could this have happened, given the zeal I once felt when I entered this profession? What can be done to replenish the deep internal reservoir that I need to sustain a lifetime of service, especially as those to whom I minister age, and face illness and death? How do you help the helper to help others help themselves?"

The Nature of the Problem

Caregivers work under enormous strain today with increased workloads, less funding, more complex problems, regulations and administrative demands, and less time with people. Most explanations of these issues are about external forces impinging on us:

  • Health care has become a big business, and seems to be only about the bottom line, high tech and low touch.
  • Regulations and requirements take precedence over caring. We're drowning in paperwork mandated by funding sources. We endure endless meetings.
  • We are asked to do more with less, serving on a 24/7 basis. The emphasis on mega-growth organizations takes the fun out of being a smaller organization.
  • The stress of being part of other persons' problems is a staggering responsibility that at times seems unbearable.

We can direct our energies to the systemic problems, but those of us on the front line may feel helpless to change the system. Some simply withdraw, care less, or get out of our chosen field entirely. Most just complain in silence. The problems seem so vast that most of us simply do not know what to do.

Seeking a Hidden Wholeness

We need to address our "crisis of the heart." We seem to experience too little joy, love, and kindness to sustain our hearts. When the heart lacks nutrients caused by blockages, it closes down and causes pain. Caregivers, especially those ministering to the aging, may live with another form of pain, caused by blockages of love to the heart. Before you can aid another in facing his or her suffering and pain, you have to heal your own. For if we do not transform our pain, we transmit it.

Yes, we need to improve the system. But we also need to look within, to become resilient again, to rediscover what gives us joy and hope in what we do. We need time for reflection, to listen deeply and authentically to the silent singing of our hearts, to redevelop our innate capacity for compassion -- to be an open-hearted presence for someone in his or her suffering. When it comes to the hatching of our heart, our spiritual training probably has been lacking. Helping skills can be taught, but a compassionate heart can only be caught. We each need to attend to our inner life, to be more human, more ourselves, to reclaim a sense of calling and an attitude of sacredness toward what we do.

Henri Nouwen said, "… a deep understanding of your pain makes it possible for you to convert your weakness into strength and to offer your experience as a source of healing to those who are often lost in the darkness of their own misunderstood sufferings." It is indeed through our suffering that we are better able to serve others. Carl Rogers said, "Expertise cures, but healing comes from our shared experiences and wounds. Before every session, take a moment to remember your humanity. There's nothing a person has experienced that I can't share because I too have experienced pain in my life."

This is the opposite of what we want to do when we are tired and rusted out. (Caregivers don't burn out in life, they rust out. Burnout happens when one puts a pot on the stove and there is too much fire under it. That's not what happens to caregivers. Instead, we lose our fire, our passion and rust out.) We want to run away from the intense fire of our jobs when we ought to rush into the fire by sharing with people their suffering. Buddhism calls this "tonglen," taking on the pain of others. What we need to do is to walk into the fire of pain, risking nothing less than everything.

A Chinese story of a master potter who worked his entire life to find the right glaze for his work says that he tried for years to find the perfect finish for his pottery. Finally, in desperation, he walked into the hot kiln himself. When his apprentice removed the pots in the kiln he found them covered and aglow with the most beautiful glaze. To find that glaze the potter had to give all of himself and walk into the intensity of the baking fire. How does one have the courage, or foolishness, to walk into the fire of passionate work when our natural desire is to go the opposite direction?

It comes from finding what Thomas Merton called a hidden wholeness, which comes from listening to the still small voice within us that speaks the truth about us, our work and our aging and suffering world. Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. You do not have to be perfect to be whole. In fact, the opposite is true: it is your wounds and suffering that gives you an understanding of another's pain. Years ago, there was a popular book titledI'm OK, You're OK. The title might have helped sell books, but it was not good philosophy; for you're not OK, but that's OK. Knowing this gives us a sense of hope that wholeness need not be a utopian dream, but can be lived out in the gritty reality of life, amid all of pain and suffering of aging, amid what the Buddha called its 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows.

How do we listen to that still voice amid the din of daily "doing?" First, we do not have to do this listening for the voice alone or in solitude. We hear it in prayer, meditation, guided imagery, poetry, art, journaling, self-reflection, group discussion, solitude, and community. We need opportunities to tell our stories and to listen and be touched by others. We need soul friends who travel with us and aid us along our path. An African expression says that two antelope travel together so one can wipe the dust from the other's eyes. Who is walking along with you today? Who provides you with deep listening, who can shift from fixing or doing to simply being present with you?

To live a life in service, especially to the aging, you need to re-find your soul that is longing to be heard, that speaks softly when it is drowned out by the noise of your busy life. You need to slow down, to re-find what it was that brought you into your chosen profession in the first place, to be-your-longing. What is it that you long to be today?

David Whyte says in his poemSelf-Portrait:


"It doesn't interest me if there is one God or many gods
I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned.
If you know despair or can see it in others.
I want to know if you are prepared to live in the world
With its harsh need to change you.
If you can look back with firm eyes
Saying this is where I stand.
I want to know if you know
How to melt into that fierce heat of living
Falling toward the center of your longing.
I want to know if you are willing to live,
Day by day, with the consequence of love
And the bitter unwanted passion of your sure defeat.
I have heard, in that fierce embrace,
even the gods speak of God."

Once you experience that deep listening, then you can display deep listening, caring, and compassion for others. You cannot take a person to a place you have not been. Carl Rogers said,"Counselors can't counsel from beyond whom they have become." Parker Palmer writes, "We heal out of who we are."

Conclusion: The Antidote for Tiredness

Are you tired and rusted out, feeling like you need a long vacation, perhaps to a deserted island somewhere? Benedictine David Stendl-Rast said that the antidote for tired may not be rest but wholeheartedness. Rest is good! We all need times of relaxation and re-creation. But after we go on vacation and return refreshed, a month later we have already lost whatever gain we made. Instead, longer-term gain comes from finding what brings us peace and joy, what gives us meaning and purpose. When it is all over, how do you want to be remembered? What do you want said about you as a helping professional? We need to live that life today, risking all. T.S. Elliott inThe Four Quartetssays this calls for risking nothing less than life itself.

The antidote for the tiredness may be to take a vacation. But more importantly, you may need to find your hidden wholeness. Wendell Berry writes, "It may be when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey."

So, when caring for the aging feels overwhelming, seek your hidden wholeness, remember why you do what you do. And do it with great love. In the end, it will all be worthwhile.


David J. Powell, Ph.D., is President of the International Center for Health Concerns, Inc., in which capacity he is assisting in the developmentof behavioral health treatment in Asia. He resides half of the year in Beijing and Singapore. Dr. Powell is the author of Playing Life's Second Half: A Man's Guide for Turning Success into Significance, as well as six other books in the mental health field. He has been a clinician and marriage and family therapist for forty years. Dr. Powell can be reached at[email protected]or www.ichc-us.org.

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