New Year's resolutions tend to favor self-improvement -- lose weight, exercise more, go to bed earlier and rid ourselves of bad habits. Better resolutions consist of helping other people with their lives.
A popular song maintains that people who need people are the luckiest people in the world. That needs correction. The luckiest people in the world are those with special needs who are blessed to have someone to care for them.
Voluntary caregivers are compensated with gratitude alone -- and sometimes not even that. Often it is a spouse, son or daughter who is devoted to caring for an aging or sick parent. But it may also be a same-sex companion who nurses an AIDS victim. The motive for self-sacrifice is love, hallowed in the marriage vow to be faithful "in sickness and in health."
Michelle Singletary, writing in The Washington Post, recently quoted Gallup research that reveals "about one in six people who have a full-time or part-time job...care for an elderly family member, relative or friend, or someone with disabilities." On average, voluntary caregivers are forced to miss more than a week's paid work every year.
One in five caregivers is a working woman, while 16 percent of caregivers are working men.
A National Institutes of Health forum has estimated the value of unpaid services by family caregivers at $306 billion a year, nearly twice as much as paid for homecare and nursing home services.
Predictably, care giving is fundamental to Christian practice. Puzzled by his teaching, the crowds who came out to listen to Jesus asked him: "When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?" Jesus replied, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."
On the whole, caregivers do not complain about the demands made on them. The Department of Health and Human Services reports that nearly four out of five describe the experience as "rewarding," an increase of 30 percent over their initial expectation. A majority report a stronger bond with the person they serve, and more than two-thirds say they actually enjoy the tasks involved in providing care.
Still, there is a stressful condition referred to as "caregiver syndrome" that is common among the 50 million people who care at home for family members, including elderly parents, and spouses and children with disabilities and chronic illnesses. Caregivers have little time to devote to their own private needs and are often as housebound as the persons they care for.
Singletary urges her readers to offer caregivers they know some time off to shop or exercise. The gift of simply listening to a hard-pressed caregiver is always welcome. So, too, is an occasional sincere word of encouragement.
Without voluntary caregivers, we would be a nation that permanently shuffles off its neediest men, women and children to impersonal institutions. This year consider making a resolution to help the helpers.
As he promised, Jesus will thank you on behalf of "the least of these."
(David Yount is the author of 14 books, including "What Are We to Do?" He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, VA 22193 and firstname.lastname@example.org.)