I am a wordie. That’s someone who’s like a foodie (but, you know, words not food. DUH people), but more opinionated and with fewer side benefits for my friends. Or perhaps that’s me generally, and we just happen to be talking about words right now. Either way, I have Opinions On Words (which may be a contraindication to Words With Friends).

Luckily I’ve mellowed since I was twelve and had to leave the room in order to avoid picking fights at the use of the word “invent” (it gives so much credit to a single individual, ignoring both the structures/knowledge that got them to that point in the first place, as well as the other people who came up with the same thing but lacked the connections/money/race/marketing to get the credit). I mean, the only direction to go was towards mellow.

So I’m mellow. And I barely notice when people use the word “invent”. And I don’t have to leave the room when my least favorite words and phrases pop up (I can go to my happy place in my head instead! And weep silently there!). I do wish my word hang-ups were the charmingly quirky variety of “oh, those two sounds together just make me shudder!” but not so much. Mine tend more towards “that word reminds me of the structural injustices of the world, the suffering they cause, and my powerlessness in the face of them.” And that’s when other people leave the room instead.

One of my long-loathed most-hated phrases is “passed away” for “died”. Even worse is “passed”. My own brother recently used it when we were talking and I felt as if my skin were on loan. “Passed” is for classes and kidney stones. (Well, “aced” is for classes, but I’m willing to throw in some near-synonyms. Ha! Grades mean nothing!) “Passed away” is for a youth/body-obsessed Puritanical culture that can handle neither dying/death nor sex and treats both as unfit for open and complex dialogue. Only sex has it easier, because it works better in sales pitches.

Back to the subject at hand! Caretaking! And caregiving! (Give a care, take a care!) These words are all very well and good for begonias and golf courses and collectible cars. But for people? Are you serious?! People aren’t static objects that I can drop care into like nickels into slot machines. People are rather dynamic. They respond to the rotation of the earth, the way it shifts on its axis. They have favorite foods. They have political ideologies. They have language and art and sometimes musical talents. They have relationships and memories and opinions. “They” are “we” and just because I’m giving the small change right now doesn’t mean I haven’t needed small change nor that I never will again.

Caretaking treats people as a receptacle for care, not a partner in it. Caretaking lacks the ethics of respecting someone else as just as human as me despite a power differential (I know what day of the week it is! And month! And where you live! I am drunk on power!). Caretaking says “as long as I offer you roughly 50% of the items on the bottom two tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy, we’ll call it even”. (Except we won’t call it even, we’ll call me a saint and such a good person for, you know, not letting you die in your own excrement! Please put my medal with the others! (Oh, but if you do it professionally, we’ll overwork/underpay you (see, it’s women’s work (again, DUH!)), treat you with suspicion, and not bother training you).)

I sometimes mentally compare how I spend my days with how a parent might. There’s definite overlap, sometimes in hearing the same question over and over and over and over again and finding it within oneself to answer it as patiently as the first time (I also spend time thinking about whether this is good training for withstanding torture (and then I spend time berating myself for that thinking, predicated as it is on the false belief that torture leads to truthful confessions)). But there’s also a huge difference. Most starkly, this is the downward slope, not the incline; I’m on the lookout for loss of skills, words, independence. I’m trying to put brakes on this train rather than speed it up.

And in the day-to-day, I’m dealing with emotional triggers older than the Pope. I’m working within a relationship that has a thirty year history that started out with me as helpless and under ten pounds. I’m navigating how to “take care of” someone whose basic personality (contrarian, devil’s advocate, debater), lifelong beliefs (society treats old people as if they aren’t human, you don’t have to get old if you choose not to), and societal roles (nurturer, father, teacher, role model, breadwinner, adventurer) all work against any graceful acceptance of obvious “eldercare”. You don’t get all that with toddler, do you!? (Please, for the love of all that is holy, tell me “no“.)

It seems foolish to fight for his corporeal survival alone; we’ve all been losing that battle to some degree since we were born. And who wants to live without meaning, without connections to others, without being heard, without feeling needed and important? Caretaking would wash his feet and trim his toenails as if they were any feet and nails. I know he hurt his foot when it got trapped in a bike wheel riding on the bike Young Lynch was driving on the way home from delivering papers during the Depression. I know his arches are high enough that at birth doctors thought he had clubbed feet and might not walk. I know he tried to get rid of a toenail fungus by running barefoot through hot sand in Liberia. I know his foot bothers him like it did in the 30s when he sewed a piece of sponge into his shoe to cushion it during daily soccer and I know his doctor says there’s nothing wrong with it except maybe a touch of arthritis. I know his heels crack in the winter, like mine, and that they always have.  I know he did this for his father when he was in his nineties.

All this means is that language fails me more often than it fails him, but for a different reason. I try to explain how I spend my time, the reason eight hours a day feels like eighteen, but I don’t have the verbs. It’s not caretaking; that’s what I do with my plants. It’s something closer to herding cats. Cats headed towards a cliff. And they list to the left when they walk and they don’t always remember what year it is. And in their mind, you will forever be the cat that they are herding. That bit is NOT AT ALL like my plants. I am doing what humans do; I am there for someone who came before me and was there for me.

OMG! I keep finding these totes relevant photos, if you just get all symbolismy in your head!

5 thoughts on “Motion: caregiving is for things that don’t fight back

  1. Hi, Fellow Thrift Sorter (“thrift herder”?)–

    So glad you let me know about your wonderful blog here! It’s like Show and Tell, my all-time favorite part of grade school.
    (I wonder if kids still do that.)

    I really appreciate your thoughts here on “caregiving”, especially since I have entered the field (sideways, as an Activities Assistant).
    Are you familiar with dementia educator Teepa Snow? I like her sensible & kind pov, and I like that she uses the term care-partner instead of care-giver. (I found her training videos on youtube.)

    I myself have used the phrase “herding cats”–it describes so well what it’s like when I’m inviting several people to attend an activity, especially one that is off the “memory care” floor (locked)–by the time I’ve gathered the last ones, the first ones have dispersed…

    Sadly, you describe how my workplace treats me (and the aides too):
    ” we’ll overwork/underpay you, and not bother training you”.
    No training is literally true in my case—I got ONE (1!) day of orientation with the director, and then I was left on my own in charge of activities with 20+ people who live with dementia.

    Luckily my “care partners” have been kind people–in my first week, one of them told me, “Sit down and take a break! They will run you ragged!” [“They” include “her”, of course, in theory, but in truth she is a helper–she’s always helping, say, to push people in wheelchairs, etc.]

    So, I’ve educated myself. Besides research online and in books, I always try to catch family members when they visit and ask them for background about their person—I don’t know about the foot-in-the-bike accident or the aversion to orange juice, etc.
    And of course the people I work with reveal themselves to me,
    . . . s l o w l y .

    Anyway, speaking of disliked words, I HATE the word “munch”.
    I dislike gratuitous cuteness in general (too bad for me, since it’s in vogue), but for some reason that particular word makes my flesh crawl.

    Ta-ta! see you in the thrift!

    • I’m so glad you linked back so I could find your blog too! Fascinating as is, but I’m excited about your potential foray into more writing on herding the elderly. It’s something that I’ve spent tons of time thinking about the past half-dozen years and trying to make meaning out of (for me, making a difference for one person over and over feels not-enough–it’s just not how I get my sense of purpose filled) and have thought about how blogging could intersect with that. But then there’s the issues of privacy, autonomy, safety, consent, etc. I’ve tried to straddle the line by finding related studies to participate in (IRB approved!) but without success.

      I’ll have to look Teepa Snow up. I feel like my father would still make gagging noises at the notion of “care-partner” but he’s also a man whose view of caring for others (never spoken; only modeled) is that you do it, without complaint, fully and lovingly, because that is what it is to be human (and if you mess up and lash out, you apologize). Sometimes I wonder if the lack of a good word comes out of that–the idea of caring being done without question and without asking and therefore there being no appropriate language for it.

      I am so sorry you are in the poorly-treated category. I have heard that this is an area where outstate/rural areas do better, perhaps because the carers are more likely to be able to get a sense of who these people are/were and to perhaps have known them before they needed care. And it’s an inherently hard job, like a drawn-out hospice with people with varying degrees of mental illness (inasmuch as they’re not in the same reality). I’d also love to hear your insight in to what could be done (what kind of training? support? groups? how to adequately compensate?) to improve conditions for workers.

      Most of my reading and thinking has been more about structural/systems stuff and basic psychology. Maintaining (a sense of) independence and dignity and contribution to the world. Using what we know about people and advancements in technology to extend those abilities. Dealing with all of this in American culture, with its prudishness about death, hyper-valuation of individualism, and lack of a safety net.

      Looking forward to more of your thoughts on your new role!

  2. Pingback: On Human Worth | l'astronave

  3. Pingback: Elsewhere: On Human Worth | happify

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