Last week I agreed to lead a fall workshop on the subject of caring for the caregiver. I proposed exploring the premise and possibility of matching a self-caring action with each caring action we perform for a loved one. An example might be to nurture myself by making myself a cup of tea as I dispense a tube feed to Nick. Or putting my favourite music on in the car as I shop for my Mom. I was wondering about the possibility of intentionally incorporating self-caring actions into everyday caregiving life.
All this seemed like the beginnings of a good idea until I listened to the astonishing BBC Essay series 'Crisis in Care' by author and journalist Madeleine Bunting. Her razor-sharp dissection of the reasons why society does not value care made me question whether it's even possible for caregivers to care for ourselves in such a murky sea of worthlessness. Bunting cites the systematic cultural and historical devaluing of care that has culminated in labelling those who need care as well those who give it as "losers who cannot achieve by making something of themselves." Anyone in a caring relationship hearing that statement and feeling some sting of truth will be hard pressed to construct a personal, guilt-free narrative that reconciles the demands of home and work.
Bunting begins her five part lecture series by exploring the roots and definitions of 'care'. What IS care and how is it different from healing or curing? Can it be taught? Where does it belong - in hospitals or at home? The speaker settles on a definition that centres on a willingness to be present with suffering, not recoiling from it. Also central to care is LOVE. Think of the wording of marriage vows. And yet. We are not educated to care, in fact caring has become counter-cultural. We are impatient and bored by giving care. But care is also central to our idea of home and security. Clearly, care is a complicated business in today's world.
The good news is that evidence tells us that the vast majority of caregivers feel it is a privilege to be in a caring relationship with a loved one. They report experiencing a powerful sense of shared humanity.
Our society is fuelled by values of individualism, independence and achievement - all values that are incompatible with care. But there are rumblings in the women's movement, in eldercare, in health care and in exploding caregiver communities that signal we are near the tipping point of sustainability. We will continue to undervalue care at our peril, individually and collectively. If lose the capacity to care for each other in families, our world is in trouble.
So, with this background of looming crisis, can we care for ourselves? Yes, I think so. I believe that our growing numbers can provide ammunition for a cultural shift towards placing care at the heart of our ideas of sustainability and survival as a species. We must be ambassadors for the GOOD in caring and we can begin by caring for ourselves as we care for others. We must model what healthy caring relationships look like, for ourselves, our children, our colleagues, friends and neighbours. Otherwise, the future is unthinkable.