By Rabbi Pamela Wax,
Spiritual Care Coordinator, and Jane Slevin, LMFT, Pathways to Care Coordinator, Westchester Jewish Community Services
Passover is traditionally a spring time holiday that provides an opportunity to celebrate the cycle of time and nature as well as our own personal freedoms. At Passover we also have the chance to recognize the responsibilities – and the burdens -- that this freedom demands. Caregiving is one such responsibility, though some are able also to view it as a privilege.
Caring for and helping others embodies the Jewish principle of g’milut chasadim (acts of loving-kindness). In the same vein, the mitzvot we do for our family members is an integral part of our Jewish tradition and heritage; providing an opportunity to deepen or renew a relationship with a loved one.
With over 40 million family caregivers in the United States, chances are you or someone you know is taking care of a loved one – most typically a spouse or a parent. Caregiving can be extremely rewarding, while also being very challenging. Family caregivers may face unique situations with respect to their own family dynamics. Inadequate communication or an unequal distribution of responsibilities among family members -- whether due to proximity, lifestyle choice or gender expectations – is not uncommon. Some long-perceived slights or alliances among family members can also affect the caregiving relationship.
Sometimes roles that family members have identified for themselves or by which they been defined may have changed. For example, what does it mean emotionally and spiritually for an adult child to be making the decisions for his or her parents? Or what happens in the family’s dynamic when siblings don’t pull equal weight in caregiving for a parent?
A spouse’s role also may be redefined when an illness strikes a family. Additionally, those who are caring for their aging parents may be members of the “sandwich generation,” juggling career and children in addition to their caregiving responsibilities. Furthermore, due to advances in modern medicine, people are living longer with chronic illnesses such as ALS, cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s as well as Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related diseases. This can take an emotional and physical toll, at times compromising caregivers’ health. It can be difficult to balance our own needs with those of the family member for whom we are providing care.
Approaching the challenges of caregiving through a holistic lens can be beneficial for both the caregiver and the care recipient. Addressing emotional, physical, spiritual and financial needs as well as navigating social and relational issues are key elements that can support a better quality of life for the caregiver and can improve family dynamics.
Support groups are one such example: providing members a safe place to share and connect with others and alleviate isolation. If caregivers cannot leave their family members, support groups can often be accessed online. The Internet is a good resource for finding local and community support services. Additionally, there are many federal, state and local resources that offer caregivers practical advice on topics such as coping with advanced care planning, home safety and home health aides.
As for a caregiver’s self-care, when does s/he get to say Dayenu -- this is enough, or this is more than I can handle alone? There are obligations/mitzvot, but there are also limits which is where the necessity of self-care kicks in. Having a spiritual outlet – such as prayer or meditation – is an important component of self-care that also can serve to both improve the quality of life for the caregiver and the overall caregiver/care recipient relationship.
Caregivers may have their own pervasive questions as they come to the Passover table that emanate from their own true and lived experience of oppression. Four questions of caregiving may be:
• How can I feel freer as I attend to my loved one’s needs? (a.k.a. when will these bitter herbs taste sweeter?)
• How shall I balance my love and my obligation with my need for self-care? (a.k.a. when will I get to relax?)
• Why does my loved one need to suffer so much?
• Considering these circumstances, how can my cup be in any way “full”?
The matza that we eat at Passover symbolizes both oppression and liberation, representing “the bread of affliction” as well as the first bread that the Israelites ate as they rushed out of Egypt towards freedom. As a result, matza seems to embody the paradoxical tension of caregiving as well – both the sense of burden and the sense of free choice, lovingly offered. For some, getting to that place of lovingkindness when one’s reserves are spent is the spiritual work. Certainly, having a safe place to share both the rewards and the burdens of caregiving is essential for spiritual self-care.
“Next year in Jerusalem” is the goal – a possibility for wholeness and well-being. L’shanah ha-ba-a birushalayim!