The second week in June is Britain’s National Carers’ Week. It provides an opportunity to raise public awareness of the 7 million plus people in the UK who are caring for family members with health needs.
As with so many things in life, the idea of the ‘cost’ associated with caring is often portrayed in financial terms. (The current estimate for what carers save the national economy is around £132 billion.) But is that the only way to measure the price tag attached to caring?
You only have to ask anyone who has found themselves in that role to realise there is a far greater cost involved. To try to quantify that cost merely in terms of its monetary value would be a grave oversight.
There are all kinds of sacrifice bound up with caring for others. At a very basic level it means a loss of personal freedom. Time spent caring for those who cannot care for themselves means less time available for personal pursuits. (The statutory 15 minutes for personal care visits provided by local authorities is somewhat derisory by comparison.)
On top of this there is the cost to a wider social life, as well as the emotional cost of being involved with needs that never go away and usually are getting worse not better. And this is not to mention the physical, psychological and even spiritual weariness that is an almost inevitable component of the ‘care package’ freely provided to loved-ones in need.
The amazing thing, however, is that despite the hidden cost of caring one rarely hears the carers complaining. And the reason for this is that, for them, it is a labour of love. The people they care for are people who really matter to them. Whether they are ageing parents, disabled children (old as well as young), or family members who struggle with chronic physical or mental health issues, they are family.
The larger challenge, however, is the fact that the idea of ‘family’ has been so eroded, redefined or simply abandoned in recent times that growing numbers of people in need simply have no ‘family’ in the traditional sense of the word to look after them. Who, then, steps in to care for them?
Sometimes it comes in the form of foster families; but the supply of such families is struggling to meet the demand of the numbers of children and young people needing their care. All kinds of agencies, such as Age Concern or Scope, provide an excellent service to particular sectors in the community. But historically it is actually the church that has played the longest-standing role as carer for those who cannot care for themselves.
From the earliest times of their history in the Roman world, Christians stepped in to care when families and the State abandoned people in need. From babies abandoned on town dumps and women abandoned by their husbands to the sick and dying abandoned to the ravages of plague, the church stepped in to look after them.
The motivation and reason behind such intervention is rooted, not in the fact that Christians are ‘nice’ people, but in what it means to be a Christian and belong to the church.
In the Old Testament, we are told God cares for the alien, the fatherless and foreigners seeking asylum among them. The God of the Bible is a God who cares and he expects his people to do so as a reflection of his character. Interestingly, it also says, ‘God sets the lonely in families’ (Psalm 68.6). That has to mean more than just the families into which they happen to have been born, but is a reference to the wider ‘church family’ of God’s people on earth.
The ultimate proof of God’s love and care is seen in the price he was willing to pay to truly secure the future of people in need. He gave his Son, the Lord Jesus, for them. He ‘so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes on him should not perish, but have eternal life’ (John 3.16).
With the rising challenge of care facing today’s generation, the church has an increasingly important part to play, not just in caring for people in need, but supporting and caring for carers as well. It is the only family that will survive into eternity.