Sally's Care Committee

The punch line of a very long joke left us groaning: "transporting young gulls over sedated lions for immortal porpoises." Still, it set a jovial tone to our potluck dinner, already graced by roasted cauliflower soup, potato salad, bread, apple crisp and cookies. The meeting followed the cookies. Karen prepared the agenda, and invited additions or changes. "Sounds good," Sally said. She then began to talk about how hot her house is in the afternoons, and how it’s getting to her. Karen agreed to call Jim to remind him to fix her ceiling fan. Her son agreed to put up the bamboo blinds. Agenda item number one of the care committee taken care of.

What is a care committee? What is it for? Who needs to have one? What is it like to be on one?

An experience in our worship group provided some answers. It all began after a particularly cold winter. Sally and Joseph, both in their 80s, live in a rural area many miles from town. They were snowed in and the power lines were down. To keep warm they stayed in bed for three days and nights. "I wasn’t worried," Sally said. "I have the background of lumping it." But their son, Michael, wasn’t as sanguine. He mentioned his concern for them to some Friends. Not living near them, he couldn’t be of much help in emergencies. He wondered if it was time for his parents to consider moving into the city. Instead, Friends suggested establishing a care committee for them. And so the seed was planted.

When Michael tentatively broached the idea to his parents of forming a care committee, they had several reactions. First, "Us need a care committee?!" Followed by, "No!" Then, waffling a bit, "Oh we’d be just a nuisance," and, "Are we entitled?" Later Sally wondered, "I know I’m not a very good housekeeper, but is it that bad?" They let the matter drop. But Michael and the meeting did not.

Several months later members of the meeting proposed the idea to them again. Sensing one of their issues, they told Joseph and Sally not to worry about control. "You’ll decide who’s to be on the committee and what to talk about. In short, you’ll be in charge," they were told. "When we realized we weren’t going to lose control of our lives to the committee, we felt better," Sally explained. The seed had germinated.

With a couple of Friends, they held a planning session over lunch after meeting on a Sunday and brainstormed a list of topics for discussion:

  • What to do when the power goes out
  • Transportation at night, as Joseph’s night vision was dimming
  • House maintenance projects
  • Emergency trips to the city
  • Finances when one dies

Next they brainstormed a long list of folks for the committee. This raised new concerns. Would some feel hurt if not invited? Should the committee be composed of only Quakers? Answer: "Just ask people you feel comfortable with. People you’d like to spend time with." They decided on a two-tiered committee: a small one for monthly gatherings and a larger one to call on for special needs. That helped solve the problem of cutting people out. It was left to Joseph and Sally to decide whom to invite and when to proceed. Karen agreed to be the convener and volunteered to invite people. The final list included their son, members of the meeting, and neighbors who were not Friends. A great mix.

At the first meeting, the convener stated her understanding of their charge: to respond to Joseph’s and Sally’s wishes that they be helped to remain in their home as long as possible. This became the guiding principle, though other goals emerged over time as needs arose.

The committee began to work on some of the issues on Joseph’s and Sally’s list, each member taking responsibility for certain forms of care. Sally once asked the committee, "Why do you want to do this?" "We love you," they responded. "We want to keep you here, with us, as long as possible."

"When it finally sunk in that the intention was to make life a little easier for us, we felt better about the committee. And it got our son involved."

Then, without warning, after only a few months of care committee meetings, Joseph became ill and was hospitalized. The committee suddenly had new responsibilities. While their son was the primary supporter for Sally, the committee scheduled constant hospital presence with the help of the second tier of members and others. Too soon the committee was helping to plan a memorial service for Joseph. Members recalled Joseph saying before he died that he felt great peace of mind in knowing the care committee would be there for Sally. While it has become, since then, Sally’s Care Committee, she is clear that in the short time it existed with his presence, it was important for him as well. For Joseph, who was very sociable, it was a way to stay in touch. According to Sally, "He was a city boy, really." Before the care committee began meeting, she felt he had been lonely.

Sally grew to trust her committee. "It’s hard to ask for help," she confessed. But after two years she was finally able to ask for what she needed and found it easier to accept care.

One addition to the committee’s responsibilities is regular check-ins with Sally. Each month one person from the committee makes it a point regularly to call or drop by, "just to chat," Sally says. She also finds the potlucks "fun and interesting," a help in focusing as well. The agenda for the meeting one month may have many of the same items on it as the previous month. The committee keeps checking to see if she has received the IRS check from an overpayment, or if she has received word that Joseph’s name has been removed from their lists. "Keeping on top of the to-do list. It clears my head," she says.

At care committee meetings, individual members check in on their own lives as well. All may have health problems or stresses in their lives. If one member can’t take on responsibilities, it is important for the rest of the committee to know that. While still Sally’s Care Committee, all members benefit from connection to and care for one another. Sally has good advice on aging. "Keep your teeth," was a firm command after she had been struggling with the difficulties of dentures. One committee member says he is learning what it is like to grow old and to receive help. "I also just love spending time with Sally. She is funny and smart."

The committee has had several work parties for Sally, involving the second tier committee. These events leave Sally feeling happy and energized. When she sees her big picture windows being washed, or the encroaching salal shrubs cut back, she feels more in control of her world. She was delighted watching Fran limb and then cut down the pear tree. "She was working so hard. We always meant to cut that old tree down. But we never got to it. Now it’s gone and out of the way." After Joseph’s death, Annie came and planted a rose bush as a memorial to him. Another time the men spent four hours digging a trench under the driveway to divert water that was creating a muddy hazard. When the crew broke for lunch, Sally had a huge spread like at an old western barn-raising.

Sally is now so enthused about the benefits of her care committee that she recommends it to all her friends. She told her water-walking classmates about it one day, and they all said, "I want one." But as Sally says, it helps to have someone else initiate it, "to get over the shyness of asking for help."

Quakers aren’t the only ones who might benefit from care committees. Senior centers and other religious organizations might facilitate setting them up. Besides a support for aging friends, committees can be established temporarily during family problems and illnesses. One Friend had a tough time during her divorce. Her committee helped keep her on an even keel during the most difficult time of her life. "But the surprising thing was," she reported, "committee members thanked me for what they got out of our meetings."

Sally says that if you want to encourage someone to have a care committee you should ask them more than once. It takes a while to get used to the idea that others might want to help out without taking control. Also, it’s much easier to start one when it isn’t a crisis, so act early in setting one up.

Sally and Joseph were often asked to be members of others’ care committees. Meetings have the advantage of being small communities in which we each can give care sometimes and receive it at other times. Sally has been able to do both, and, after three years of support from her committee, she has no plans to leave the community!

Kate Hunter Nina Sullivan

Kate Hunter and Nina Sullivan are members of the Vashon Island Worship Group and University Meeting in Seattle, Washington. Kate Hunter has served on and been the clerk of a care committee in her meeting for many years. She writes poetry and short stories, and essays on the subjects of restorative justice and peace. Nina Sullivan's primary social action work has been for Granny's Attic, a thrift store that raises money for a community medical clinic.