They are husbands, wives, sons, and daughters all connected through a common mission, loving care for others. The question is, who is taking care of these caregivers? Most of the approximately 43.5 million caregivers in the U.S. are in their 50s, often working full-time and raising their own children.

Catholic Charities of Central Florida executive director Gary Tester says, “Caring for someone, from a family perspective, can mean a great deal of stress, spiritually, emotionally, physically and financially. We think it’s important to do all that we can to help families address those issues and let them know that they’re loved and supported. There’s no better way to promote that than through the development of ministries, unofficially through the parishes, and then officially through entities across the diocese like Catholic Charities.”

After the success of last year’s caregivers conference in Lake County and enabled by a grant from the WellMed Foundation, Catholic Charities of Central Florida partnered with the non-profit organization Share the Care and other faith-based groups. Share the Care CEO, Mary Ellen Philbin, attends St. Mary Magdalen Parish. “When we help the sick, we are directly being Jesus on Earth,” said Philbin. “In all of our teachings, we are one body… one community. No matter what place we are in our trajectory of life – whether we’re the person that’s ill or we’re caring for the person that’s ill, or well and able to help… all of that is our responsibility. We can’t think of ourselves as alone in the world. There are so many churches that want to do it and don’t know how. This provides the how.”

Sister Maria Teresa Acosta of the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary has already put that plan into action at Annunciation Parish in Altamonte Springs. With the help of the bereavement team Caregivers Support Ministry was established in January 2018.

Adult Faith Formation coordinator Mary Ann Fox, who assists the Annunciation group said, “In that (bereavement) ministry, you find out how spouses or adult children have been caring for the deceased for a number of years, and the sacrifice and challenges that can sometimes come with being a caregiver. I think the conference helped confirm what we felt was a need and gave us a ‘roadmap’ as to how to start our group.”

Kathy Ploehn, facilitator for Caregivers Support Ministry, cared for her husband for two years prior to his passing and knows the joys and burdens firsthand. “It’s an opportunity to share experiences as caregivers – the good things and the hard things and the things that sometimes seem impossible,” said Ploehn. As a hospice nurse of 15 years, she brings resources and personal experience to meetings. “The most important thing we do is give people an opportunity to talk and vent, to share experiences with other people who know what they’re going through,” she explained. “Just knowing somebody else has walked that journey makes things so much easier.”

The main requisite for the group was that it be Christ-centered and spirit-based. Ploehn feels it is important that caregivers be able to share where they see God in their situation and how that impacts their spiritual journey. “Without spirituality and that sense that God is with you, it is 100 times harder to be a caregiver for someone you love.”

Parishioner Fran D’Alessandro agreed. She has helped ailing family members since her early 20s. Although she is not currently a caregiver, she felt the need to share what she learned after tending to her parents and in-laws until they passed. She wishes she would have had the same support. “I don’t think I would have felt as alone,” she shared. “It’s almost a relief to hear there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s all in God’s timing.” Despite the struggles, D’Alessandro was also quick to point out, “It’s the greatest gift I’ve ever received – to care for someone who has cared for me.”

The next Caregiving with Faith conference will take place September 27 at the Mission Inn Resort in Howie-in-the-Hills. For more information call 407-423-5311.

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic – July 18, 2018