Caregiving: Surviving and Thriving.

This article was first published in the Island Word in 2005. 

A few months ago we were invited to give a workshop for the family care givers of elderly patients. Ever since then, we have been reflecting, reading, and listening to people who look after family members. What we are learning is that “care giving” is an extremely complicated, and varied experience. What we are certain about is that there is no single face of “the caregiver” in our society, nor is there one set of needs or one set of experiences shared by all.

Care giving is paid or unpaid, formal or informal, home-based or institutional, family-provided or other-provided. The people who receive care are disabled or able-bodied (and in-between), young or old (and in-between), pleasant or unpleasant (and in-between). Those who give care do so for so many reasons: for love, for meaning, for enjoyment, for a living wage, for interest and stimulation, for praise, for paying back debts of gratitude, for paying forward to make the world better.

We are also learning what an ordinary part of life care is. Needing care is not some special or new problem to be solved, although our society has many problems around providing care at the moment. Everyone needs care at many points in their lives, and in many forms.

We are learning that those who give care have many skills. Some of these skills come from formal education. Some are learned through an informal education that occurs in our homes and neighborhoods–not long ago mothers, aunts and neighbors gave most girls a very long and complex training for care giving that was entirely separate from formal schooling. Other skills we teach ourselves, on the job. A husband taking care of his ailing wife, a mother taking care of a tiny baby, a daughter taking care of her mother, and a nurse in a hospital emergency room have very different people to care for, and different situations to care in, for but they also have more in common than shows on the surface.

To give care means working with other care givers. These alliances can be quite difficult to set up and to maintain. For instance, a child who is “in care” of the government may have foster parents, biological parents, step parents, grandparents, a social worker, some aunts and uncles, a teacher and a set of siblings. Each of these people wants to help, and each may have particular gifts that the child needs. At the same time, it may be quite difficult for each to set aside misgivings about some of the others and build trusting alliances for the child’s sake.

Another skill that comes with care-giving is that of accepting and adjusting to pain. With all of our advanced medicine, nearly one in four people will still experience chronic pain in their lives, and this will be easier to deal with it isn’t compounded with fear, or with the idea that pain is some unnatural, tragic event visited upon only us. The strategies for coping with pain include adjusting how we do things, ignoring what we can get by with ignoring, distracting ourselves, practicing relaxation or meditation, taking medications, taking baths, and even finding meaning in suffering.

Most care givers take great pride in their work, even if that work sometimes seems invisible to others. Almost all who do this work, paid or unpaid, feel that it is important and has value. But it is hard to see the value of care in a society that thinks of “independence”, not interdependence, as its primary virtue. When society doesn’t value care, it fails to create good conditions for it to thrive. Regaining the emotional energy needed when “the cup runs empty” can be a challenge in these times, when so much of political and social thinking seems bent on denying the need for, and the work of, care between people.

It has been said many times that it takes a village to raise a child. One might also say that it takes a village to get any of us through our lives, from cradle to grave. We are never free from our need for care, and we are never free from our need to care. Nor is care a private thing, behind family walls and separate from the “real world” of business.

If we are paying attention, we may see that our days are full of small acts of care. There is the person who left the shower clean and fresh before us in the morning, or who makes our lunch, or who sends us a funny thing on the internet, or who calls out to us as they take their evening walk, checking the neighborhood over one more time. Care flows along the lines of a big, invisible web of ties that can support us, challenge us, pull us down, or hold us steady. It is in this web of care that we experience our sweetest, and our stickiest, moments.

Needing one another, whether we are young, old or in-between, is natural and right. Care givers have skills and knowledge that everyone is going to need at some point in their lives. The life meaning and the richness that people find in the giving and receiving of care makes the fact of human suffering easier to live with, if not always counting as a blessing. A community that nourishes the flow of care in our lives will see alliances forming, warmth and pride in work growing, burn-out averted, and people thriving despite the hardships of facing illness and disability. .