the perfect home helper for my elderly mom

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.

Originally posted on The Caregivers’ Living Room

Written by Donna Thomson
Donna Thomson began her career as an actor, director and teacher. But in 1988, when her son Nicholas was born with severe disabilities, Donna embarked on her second career as a disability activist, author, consultant and writer. Donna is the Special Advisor for Caregiving at Tyze Personal Networks and is the International Advisor to the PLAN Institute for Caring Citizenship. She is the co-founder of Lifetime Networks Ottawa, a PLAN affiliate and is a member of the Cambridge University Capability Approach Network. Donna is also an instructor at the Advocacy School (Ottawa, Canada), teaching families how to employ best practice political advocacy tools when advocating for care. Donna holds degrees in Fine Art (Theatre), Education and Theatre in Education. Donna’s interest in new modes of social engagement for marginalised families led her to sit on numerous boards, such as the London International Festival of Theatre, Women for Women International Leadership Circle and Dovercourt Community Association. Donna has spoken on disability and family wellbeing extensively, including at the London School of Economics, the Skoll World Forum, and the International Centre for Evidence in Disability.

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