Let me tell you about a perfect caregiver I know. Her name is Glenna and she looks after my Mom for a couple of hours on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Mom’s home care agencies are littered with support workers she’s thrown out – my mother resents needing help and quite often, she takes it out on her unsuspecting caregivers, especially if they are patronising. But Glenna is different. She’s quiet, but smart. Sensitive, but direct. Respectful, but not fawning. When Glenna is home, you wouldn’t know it, except that the laundry is done, the kitchen is tidy, there is a sandwich and fruit plate prepared in the fridge and Mom is dressed with her hair styled.
Eva Kittay, the philosopher and disability Mom, describes the perfect caregiver as a ‘transparent self’:
A transparent self does not allow its own needs or vision of the good to cloud its
perception of another’s needs, and so offers no resistance to its response to
another (except, of course, when such a response would be in direct violation of a
well considered and deeply held moral belief or conception of the good). The
perception of and response to another’s needs are neither blocked by nor refracted
through our own needs and desires. A transparent self attempts to intuit and
respond to the other’s own sense or understanding of their own good, and does so
for the other’s own sake. (2007, 53)
Glenna is transparent when she gives care. For example, a couple of days ago, I visited Mom and when I arrived, Glenna was there along with my sister Karen. We all converged on Mom because we knew that she didn’t feel well and might have pneumonia. I watched as Glenna knelt at Mom’s chair-side and asked quietly, ‘would you like a dressing gown? It’s a bit chilly in here.” She didn’t ask about putting a glass of ice water on the table, she just did it. Glenna would never, ever ‘show off’ her caregiving skills or her friendship with Mom to us, the daughters. She knelt beside Mom to establish eye contact and be heard without disturbing conversation in the room (Mom is slightly hard of hearing). Glenna never draws attention to Mom’s frailty or needs – her assistance makes Mom seem more able and less dependent than she is.
Glenna is a perfect caregiver and we are very, very grateful to have her in Mom’s life. But as I say in my book, The Four Walls of My Freedom, “The extent to which a carer has to become ‘transparent’ in order to provide good care, acutely listening and watching for signs of need or distress, cannot and should not be sustained without reward and rest.”
Transparent caregivers are perfect caregivers, but they are fragile. We all need to support the integrity, strength and health of the perfect caregivers in our lives – our own future wellbeing as care receivers depends on it.
Donna Thomson is a caregiver, author and activist. Her book, The Four Walls of My Freedom: Lessons I’ve Learned From a Life of Caregiving (House of Anansi Press, 2014) is available from all major booksellers in the USA and Canada.