Praise for Caregivers
When my cousin was younger, maybe six or seven, she and my aunt were saying a few prayers as my aunt tucked her in for bed.
“…..and please pray for Grandma and her sister Angie. Amen.”
This would be told as a hilarious story for years on end, because Angie was simply not my grandmother’s sister. She’s not related to my grandmother, or anyone in my family at all. Yet, it was perfectly rational of six-year-old Libby to assume, as Angie accompanies our family to every dinner, every trip, and every football game. She came into our lives when Libby was young enough to label Angie as another relative.
A few years after my grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, my mom, her sisters, and my grandmother contacted an Irish caregiving agency.
It was the beginning of fifteen years of unparalleled selflessness, nurturing, and support. The line between caregiver and beloved companion blurred remarkably quickly—to the point where it was hard to imagine these women not part of our family.
After years of meeting dozens of caregivers, it never occurred to me that the entire agency was female. This is hardly surprising, though—caregiving is a form of nurturing, and women are perceived as predominantly nurturing. I don’t know if women are inherently—perhaps biologically—more nurturing than men, or why caregiving is seen as a womanly job. What I do know, though, is that these “womanly” skills were the most astounding I’ve ever seen. And I wish more people knew it, and celebrated them.
As a ten-year-old at the time, I was not aware enough to observe the role of each caregiver. But now, years after my grandfather has passed away, I am able to carefully unravel/dissect the way that each woman left her mark.
To say that my family’s life became more manageable with the help of caregivers is intuitive—that is their job, after all. But the degree to which these women were able to forge bonds with both my grandmother, who was losing a piece of her husband’s identity with each passing week, and perhaps more remarkably, my grandfather, who was losing a bit of himself each day—was altogether miraculous.
Daughters are Caregivers, Not Sons
I recently learned that daughters are twice as likely as sons to act as caregivers for their elderly parents. The study also showed that sons would reduce their caregiving efforts if they have sisters, and by contrast, women will increase their caregiving work if they have brother, as if to compensate for them.
Men don’t fail at caregiving—before they even try, they seem to presume it is a skill reserved for women. And women reinforce this assumption as well, by overcompensating if they do have brothers. And it unsettles me that our society has gone as far as to attach gender to such important traits as compassion.
Compassion is the only word I can think of that at least scratches the surface of the eye-opening work of caregivers. I am in awe of the women who extract fulfillment from interacting with those who cannot take care of themselves. Regardless of what age you are, when you lose your ability to take care of yourself, your dignity is inevitably at stake. Caregivers confront this vulnerability head-on, and I have seen it firsthand.
When my grandfather locked one caregiver out of his house, she found humor in the situation-- in fact, even years later we can still laugh about it. Years after his diagnosis, when my entire family would stand awkwardly in his nursing home room, and he would need to go to the bathroom, they would take care of it without blinking an eye. They didn’t feel uncomfortable, so neither did we.
When his eyes looked lifeless, blank holes, and repeatedly calling his name did not make him stir, they were able to instill energy in him. They couldn’t make him remember us, or talk to us, but they could make him smile and laugh and sing. They were emblems of human connection, capable of effortlessly molding new mediums of communication. To be able to get through to someone—I learned, is an invaluable trait. It is the ability, I think, to see and promote humanity as a transcendent force—one that inherently transcends age, race, illness, weaknesses, and more.
These aren’t skills that you can teach. They are skills that you cultivate and ones that I am continuously in awe of.
When we see nurturing as a primarily female trait, our preconceived notions about gender differences expand and manifest in unequal ways. When we assume women have the role of nurturers, we are less accepting and tolerant of powerful women in business, or as doctors.
Training for Compassion
To understand how and why one acquires such skills, I decided to research more about the role of a professional caregiver. In the senior care industry for professional caregiver employment, caregiver training is regulated by each state’s Department of Health. In New York, I discovered, the state law requires six hours of professional caregiver training, which seems to be common for most states. Yet, in New Jersey, 76 hours are required.
Two things unsettled me when I learned this. First of all, how could there be such a discrepancy in caregiver training between New York and New Jersey? It seems as though our society doesn’t have a cohesive definition of what skills are required for caregiving, and how precisely we learn these skills.
And, at the same time, the concept of “training” to become a caregiver bothers me. After watching caregivers interact with elderly people such as my grandfather, it feels oversimplified to reduce these skills to a mere “course” that you can learn. How can any lesson or lecture teach you compassion? And why does our society seem to have boundless information on learning business skills, but place seemingly limited value in “soft” skills like compassion?
We cheer and look on in awe at those who make incredible business deals. Who thrive in the financial industry, who perform life-saving surgeries, who are police officers or firefighters. And it is true that in some sense, these people are heroes.
But I think that we too often forget to acknowledge the less glamorous heroes in our society. The ones who want to help people who can’t stand by themselves, or get dressed, or go to the bathroom, or shower. The ones who are advocates for those who don’t have a voice—or at least, for those who to lose their ability to express themselves
I don’t hear many conversations about these heroes.
Perhaps because the work they do is, in the least, uncomfortable. No one wants to talk about the loss of dignity, especially accompanying those at the end of their lives. And yet, we all experience this in some form, so what good are we doing by considering it taboo? We are generating unnecessary shame in the world of vulnerability; we are preventing access to conversations of healing and humanity.
I don’t think that men are less capable of nurturing than women.
I do think, however, that less people are willing to see the value in this trait, because we are inclined to focus on concrete, quantifiable success, and as a result, many equally lifesaving men? are overlooked.
This says a lot about what our society values, and how we ought to change our views of success. Sometimes success isn’t concrete, but rather emotional. To bridge the gap between a vulnerable, mentally or physically ill person and another human being is to succeed, too. And this isn’t a skill that we should attribute exclusively to females, if it’s a need everyone will have at some point in their lives.
My grandpa passed away five years ago. And although Angie is no longer an official “caregiver” in our family, she nevertheless remains a big part of our lives today, I refer to her as a “family friend.” I don’t bother adding in the “caregiver” title—it’s confusing to people. After all, But she is, and always has been, part of our family. So close you might mistake her for my grandma’s sister.
Author: Caroline Geithner
Caroline is a current English major at Georgetown University with a passion for writing, psychology, travelling, and photography. Growing up just outside of New York City, she spent many of her weekends in high school exploring the city, and now does the same in Washington D.C. She tutors underprivileged children in Washington D.C. and has become passionate about children’s equal access to education, including gender barriers that disadvantage young girls.