'I need help as a single carer'

Many single people find themselves shouldering the responsibility of caring for parents and older relatives, or looking after seriously ill or disabled children alone. But you and your church can help…

How to help single carers in your church

By Catherine Francis     

‘…There should be no division in the body … its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.’ 1 Corinthians 12 v 25-27

Many single people, particularly women, find themselves becoming the carer in their family. When elderly parents or other relatives become frail, ill or develop dementia, it’s often assumed that the single family member will shoulder most or all of the responsibility for their day-to-day care. With no partner or children, they’re frequently expected to move in and become a full-time caregiver. This is despite the fact that single people don’t have the advantage of practical, emotional and financial backup from a partner, and tend to struggle more with money – and caring often comes at a heavy financial cost.

Caring for a child with long-term health problems or disabilities is also extremely difficult and stressful, and for single parents, the physical, mental and emotional strain is considerable. They may barely get a moment’s rest from caring around the clock, and have no one with whom to discuss major medical, care and education decisions. 

How can I help?

While many people take on the care of their loved ones willingly, the task can still be overwhelming, especially if wider family members don’t pull their weight. However, as a church leader, there’s a great deal you can do to help single carers in your congregation. Here’s what single Christian caregivers tell us will help in their time of need…

‘If we can’t get to church, bring church to us’

Many carers find they’re no longer able to attend church easily, so they miss out on spiritual and emotional support just when they need it most. It really helps if you can make sure they don’t drop off the church radar. Home visits to chat and pray are invaluable, as are calls and emails to check how they’re doing. Single carers say how much it means to them when their church leaders pray with them and for them.

You may also want to consider asking for volunteers from the church to sit with the cared-for person occasionally so their caregiver can attend a service, or make adjustments so they can bring their loved one to church with them (your parish safeguarding officer should be involved in this). Perhaps you could ask if the carer would like to host a small group in their home so they don’t miss out. You may even consider having a service to formally acknowledge, honour and pray for paid and unpaid caregivers.

‘I have chronic fatigue. I live with a very generous friend who cares for me. She’s currently away for a few weeks. Just before she left, my mum was rushed into hospital for an emergency bowel operation. My mum normally cares for my dad and helps me when I’m on my own, but this time I had to sort out care through social services for myself and my dad, who has Alzheimer’s and Asperger syndrome – no easy task when you’re poorly yourself. But my church family have been amazing. Different people have provided meals and hospital visits, as well as doing food shopping and taking me out. I’m extremely blessed – even though there’s a lot of need in my church right now, people still make time for me and my family.’

‘Help us find the help we’re entitled to’

Being a carer can be an exhausting, distressing and lonely experience. There are a number of organisations that exist to support carers, provide information and connect them with others in the same position. Caregivers may also be entitled to some financial support, especially if they have to give up working to look after their loved one. As carers often struggle financially and end up living below the poverty line, it’s essential they get all the benefits they’re entitled to. You can visit our article [here – article for single carers] for organisations to which you can direct your church member, and for information about where they can find out what they’re entitled to. You may even be able to offer practical help accessing assistance.

‘My dad and I struggled on for a long time before we learned that we were entitled to sickness and carer benefits. It’s not a lot, but it certainly helps.’

Offer to mediate with our families’

If your church member is getting little help from their wider family, it may be appropriate for you to offer to contact their family or mediate at a family meeting. It may be easier for you to explain the strain of the caregiver’s day-to-day responsibilities – and the toll it’s taking on their mental and physical health, work and finances – than it is for them to ask for help. The family may listen more to an outside professional, and you can encourage them to share the load.

‘I’m currently trying to care for a number of relatives (with varying levels of need). I’ve given up hoping for any support from the wider family, because they’re all “too busy” – even though I work more than full-time hours, while they don’t work at all, and their children are grown up. I don’t resent helping the people I love, but there are only so many hours in the day, and I constantly feel I’m failing everybody. I never have time for myself – I haven’t had time to switch the TV for over three years. I’m worn out.’

‘Encourage your church to mobilise practical help’

Many churches swing into action to help a member of their congregation who is struggling, organising rotas for delivering meals, doing shopping or helping with practical tasks around the house. If the carer rarely gets time off, you could encourage church members to offer respite care, so the caregiver can escape for a few precious hours to rest and recharge, and attend to their own health and wellbeing.

 ‘To a church leader I would say: encourage your flock to walk the talk – to think of practical ways to support the carer so they can gather strength to carry on caring. As wonderful as it is to know people are praying, it’s also wonderful to have the odd meal cooked for me, a hug, or some words of encouragement. Also be aware that sometimes the person who’s always smiling is hiding a lot of pain.’

Offer counselling and spiritual support’

Watching a loved one struggling to live a normal life, battling pain or disintegrating mentally – whether that’s a child, a parent or another family member – is a deeply distressing and emotionally gruelling experience. Carers often feel helpless or guilty that they can’t do more to relieve their loved one’s suffering. They may experience fear of the future, loss of confidence and self-esteem, and shame at feelings of resentment. They may have to watch someone they love dying. All of this can impact severely on their mental health, leading to depression, anxiety and other issues.

They will benefit greatly from counselling and being able to talk through their feelings. You may be able to spot early warning signs of needing professional mental health treatment. They may also need reassurance that doubts and anger at God for their situation are natural, and that God still cares for them.

‘While I’ve been looking after several family members, my vicar and his wife, and our pastoral minister (a qualified counsellor), have helped to keep me upright and functioning. They ask questions and let me talk. It helps to keep me sane – just!’

Ask, don’t assume’

Carers sometimes report having “help” foisted upon them that actually makes life harder, or being given unwanted or impractical advice. The most important thing is to ask the caregiver what would help them most, and follow their requests. The carer and the cared-for person are the experts in their situation, and we can’t assume we know what’s best for them.

‘It just isn’t practical for me to look after my parents at short notice – I live over 200 miles away. Despite that, when my father was taken into hospital, people thought I should drop everything because I have no children. I managed to get some time off work until things were under control, and my aunt now keeps an eye on them. Everyone had an opinion about how my parents should be looked after, but no one gave my parents a voice in these decisions. To churches I would say that every situation is unique. Talk to the carer and the cared for to see what would help and work for each of them. Care needs can’t be forced to fit prescribed programmes or preconceived ideas. Churches need to be honest about what they can and can’t do.’

‘Please remember we may struggle with money’

Caregivers often struggle on a very low income. It will ease the burden if you can make sure they don’t miss out on paid church events by having free places or a fund for those on low income. If someone is really struggling to make ends meet, some churches step in with boxes of food and groceries, vouchers and practical gifts.  

‘When I became a single parent and was struggling financially, the church gave me shopping vouchers, and people often invited us for lunch or turned up with food boxes. I’m so grateful, and now I try to do the same for others.’

With thanks to: Rebecca, Deborah, Cathy, Paola, Kate, Tanya and Peter.


Your church members can find suggestions for surviving as a single carer here where you will also find further information for helping them to get the support they need.