Monica Dodds and Jennifer Antkowiak both cared for loved ones when they were growing up.
Dodds, who lives in Mountlake Terrace, Wash., took turns with family members caring for her aging grandfather. Antkowiak, an award-winning news anchor for KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh, took care of her four younger sisters when their mother suffered from depression.
Each of the women also became caregivers later in life, and from those experiences, they are reaching out to help others who, they said, are answering God’s call.
“God has asked us to take on the role of a caregiver, and he loves the care receiver even more than you do,” Dodds, 60, said. “God is asking you to take care of that person, and that makes it into a vocation and commitment in the way of offering it to God.”
Dodds and her husband, Bill, founded CatholicCaregivers.com, YourAgingParent.com and Friends of St. John the Caregiver (FSJC.org). They offer resources and nearly 40 articles to print for families, caregivers and parish outreach and a website where strangers can pray for each other.
Antkowiak is the author of two books, “Take Care Tips” (St. Lynn’s Press, $14.95) and “Caring Questions: Sensitive and Fun Conversation Starters” (St. Lynn’s Press, $9.95). She also writes for newspapers and magazines, appears on radio and television shows, and is a speaker, caregiving coach and developer of national multimedia caregiving projects, resources and articles at JenniferCares.com.
Embracing the role
Antkowiak’s challenges in giving care strengthened and reinforced her Catholic faith, she said.
“When you come to a place where you accept [the caregiving] and ask for help from God, and you welcome that faith and embrace it, it fills you up and changes the complexion of the caregiving situation,” she said.
Antkowiak was still in college and just months from her wedding when her mother died of a heart attack at age 50. She was close to her mother-in-law and years later, cared for her after she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. At that time, Antkowiak had a toddler son and newborn daughter.
“Things progressed rapidly, and this is where my eyes were opened to what happens when people become family caregivers,” she said.
Her mother-in-law died at home six weeks later, and Antkowiak and her husband Joe welcomed his father into their home. He was diagnosed with cancer six months later, and lived for more than six years.
In the family
Dodds has a background in social work, including with the Catholic Community Services in the Archdiocese of Seattle. Her husband is a writer, and together they are editors of Our Sunday Visitor’s My Daily Visitor.
Growing up with her ailing grandfather and, later on, her grandmother in her home taught her valuable lessons.
“I learned from my parents that this is how you take care of the generation that came before you,” she said.
Dodds and her husband took care of his late father, then hers. Their mothers, both in their 90s, are in a Catholic assisted-living facility, but the couple still actively cares for them through visiting, running errands and doing paperwork.
“Most people begin by taking over a few things,” Dodds said. “Then gradually the senior person deteriorates, and it can be very slow. Or it can be fast, like a stroke.”
Dodds said it’s prayer that can get caregivers through the days, months and sometimes years to come.
“They can be simple prayers from the heart,” Dodds said. “And you don’t have to go someplace else to be with God. You can chat with him right where you are. Or you can say prayers like the ‘Our Father’ and ‘Hail Mary’, and ask God what to do next and to show you the light.”
The couple wrote prayer books for caregivers (free for the asking), and 500 people who are registered as Friends of St. John the Caregiver are committed to pray. They chose the apostle as the patron because in Jn 19:26-27, he went to the foot of the cross where Christ placed his mother in John’s care.
“We selected Mary, Our Lady in Need, as the patron saint of care receivers,” Dodds said.
Two years ago, a bout with cancer left Dodds unable to care for others, and she became a care receiver herself.
“I saw what it was like to be on the other side,” she said.
Bill, her husband, who has taken care of their aging parents, stepped in to help her.
“In many ways, male caregivers are pioneers, and are playing a much more active role — sometimes a primary role — in caring for a loved one,” he said.
It’s not always easy for men to take on that challenge, he added, because men may not want to ask for help. They might also feel uncomfortable providing personal care, but they can ask a female relative to help, or hire someone who can. A marriage can become stressed, too, when an in-law needs care.
“If you’re the husband or wife of an adult child who is taking care of an aging parent, it can seem that no matter what you say or do, it’s the wrong thing,” he said. “Suddenly, you may find yourself an outsider as the immediate family circle closes ranks.”
A part of life
It isn’t only the elderly who need assistance, either. Individuals of any age can have disabilities or sicknesses that require long-term or lifetime care. According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, there are an estimated 16.8 million special needs children under age 18, many who will need care the rest of their lives.
“Sometimes you need to understand and embrace that this is not short-term, this is the way we are going to live,” Antkowiak said, “You need to make a plan so that this illness is not going to rob you of having a rich life.”
Caregiving can come in temporary spurts, too. For instance, she said, when there’s a new baby, or an older child breaks a leg or an arm, or someone gets sick. Those situations often aren’t identified as caregiving, but they really are.
Antkowiak advises caregivers to take care of themselves with breaks and encourages them to turn to God.
“Our faith can replace feelings of emptiness that caregivers have at different stages of their journey,” she said. “Faith can give us energy and recharge us in a very practical way.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.