Ask a new mother how she knows the meaning of her baby's different cries. Ask about today's diaper rash compared to how it looked yesterday. All that detailed information is stored in a mother's (or father's) head, recorded by the engine of love and caring.
The same goes for caregivers of older people and those with disabilities. The test of what a caregiver actually knows from closely observing a vulnerable charge will be tested when a relief carer arrives and the long list of 'what to do, what not to do, what to watch for, what is important, what is not important' becomes almost the size of a scholarly thesis.
Caregivers use their senses to gather a myriad of information about their loved one. An important way that we know if something has changed or medical issues need attention is often through our watchful gaze and our sense of smell.
Smell is a sense that is often maligned and shuffled off to remain behind closed doors of conversation because of its relation to incontinence and other indignities of aging or infirmity. But smell gives us the power to quietly protect the dignity of our loved in the case of incontinence. It can alert us to infection, to a decrease in functional self-care by tell-tale odors related to a lack of cleanliness or oral health.
A caregiver's eyes are fixed on detail. No one sees better than someone who cares for a non-speaking person or someone with communication difficulties. Listening becomes seeing and all senses are on high alert - caregivers know the trick of watching with their whole self. This is no easy task, it takes practice, discipline and a willingness to let go of one's own ego. New age proponents talk about 'being in the moment'. Caregivers know a lot about being in the moment.
Watching, smelling, seeing, and touching with your whole self for the benefit and wellbeing of someone else is a double-edged sword. It's life enhancing alright, ask any caregiver. But it's exhausting and draining too, especially if there is no time for letting one's mind just float aimlessly - for looking at your own reflection. Next week: listening and the sixth sense of caring.