The healing effects of caregiving get little attention. Many family #caregivers understand that caring for someone can bring positive change and transform our lives. After a week of horrific national violence, I think caregivers have insight to offer as America struggles to heal.
I’ve been thinking about the children who lost a loved one this week. A policeman killed Philando Castile as his girlfriend and her 4-year old daughter watched. Shortly afterward, the families of five Dallas policemen lost fathers, sons, and brothers. The pain that ripped through the country after these senseless murders shreds the fabric of our society. It will haunt us for years to come.
Caregivers and Healing
I think caregivers have a unique perspective on these events. Every day we get up and minister to people we love. We have a deep understanding of the value of life and constant awareness of the threat of death. Research on caregivers also shows that most of us feel caring for a loved one has a healing effect on us. Our approach to healing can play a role in our communities, too.
A 2014 National Opinion Research Center survey found that 83 percent of caregivers viewed our work as a positive experience. Many family caregivers also said they felt: “a sense of giving back to someone who has cared for them, personal growth, and increased meaning and purpose” in life.
People I know are often surprised when I tell them how much I value the experience of caring for my mom. They see it as a hard job and one that must surely depress me. Sometimes that’s true. But I’m also very thankful that I have a job that allows me to do this for my mother. Being a caregiver has made me a far more compassionate, patient and loving person. I feel the healing effect of caregiving in every aspect of my life and I want to share that with others.
Caregivers make the preservation of life a priority even when we know that we can’t save our loved one. Yet so many people around us believe that shooting people who are African-American, White, Latino, or Gay is an acceptable response to conflict. My family raised me to value life and my experience as a caregiver has strengthened what I learned as a kid. We need to respect the gift of life that was given to each person in our society and find ways to make our world more humane for everyone. If you are a caregiver, please encourage your friends and family to share their love and not their hate. There is more than enough outrage to go around, but not nearly enough compassion.
Caregiver experience can be acquired by anyone working with a dementia patient. Caregiver wisdom is something else entirely. People can learn the mechanics of the job without getting any wiser about the disease or the human condition. How can we transform our experience into wisdom?
Can you find the hummingbird in this photo?
Merriam Webster says experience is “something personally encountered, undergone, or lived through.” Caregivers experience the challenge of communicating with those who can’t speak. We feel the exertion of helping people who can’t move. The smelly reality of incontinence is part of daily life. But just witnessing these things doesn’t make us wise. Some get the job done by going through the motions without ever seeing the deeper truths in front of us.
The word wisdom has many meanings. But the definition of wisdom that applies here is the “ability to discern inner qualities and relationships; insight.” In the past eight years, I’ve observed aides in residential care settings, senior programs, and in my home. I’ve also tried to examine my own behavior as my mother’s disease progressed and I logged years of “experience.” The wisest, most effective caregivers are often people with a personal connection to someone with dementia. Their workplace compassion has deep roots.
About a month ago, an aide visited my mom. She was subbing for someone who had a sudden emergency. Before I explained anything about my mom’s routine, she sat at my mother’s side and held her hand. This simple gesture was so calming to my mom. It was like the aide performed a magic trick. I later learned that for years she’d taken care of a grandmother with dementia.
Something happens when you’re close to this disease for a long time. If you really pay attention, you can see behavior patterns occurring below the surface of basic interactions. You start to notice how subtle changes in your behavior can have a deeper impact on the person in your care. My mom, for example, really trusts me and will often cooperate more if I reach her through touch and tone of voice before attempting some task. I was not always so careful with her. But over time I’ve learned that she responds much better when I’m truly attentive.
It’s very hard to give that much focus to an entire unit of patients with extreme needs. I feel sorry for caregivers employed in overcrowded settings. Many of them are too overwhelmed to provide the proper level of care. But I don’t have a lot of sympathy for slackers working in a situation that could make them much wiser if they paid some attention. There are definitely employees in elder care settings who neglect vulnerable people without thinking. Given the rising number of dementia cases across the country, I think we need to start asking public officials and health care policy makers to hold providers to a higher performance standard. As the number of dementia patients increases, our society must develop a system of care driven by wisdom from families and professionals who truly understand the disease. Are there any signs of progress in your neck of the woods?