According to the 2015 report by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, nearly 44 million adults in this country provide personal assistance for family members with disabilities or other care needs. As Cynthia Orange points out in her latest book, Take Good Care: Finding Your Joy in Compassionate Caregiving, when you add to this statistic the number of family, friends, and others who are at the ready to lend support or extend a helping hand when it is needed, you might ask, “Who isn’t a caregiver?”
Take Good Care is unique because it isn’t your typical self-help, memoir, resource, or reference guide. It’s all of the above. And more. It uses caregivers’ stories, up-to-date research, advice from experts, and her experience to discuss a broad range of caregiving issues, from finding our appropriate place in the “circle of care” to raising compassionate children and how family systems, cultural beliefs, and experiences can influence how we care for others. A thread in the book is the importance of self-care, self-awareness, balance, boundaries, and of being prepared—especially at those times of crisis when “lightning strikes” or a loved one is diagnosed with diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Throughout the book, Orange highlights the often subtle distinction between caretaking and caregiving, as she does in this excerpt from the introduction:
“I think of caretaking as codependency’s close cousin. However, while there has been a trend to think of codependency as a pathological disease that requires treatment (or a support group), I don’t view caretaking through that same lens in this book. While many caretaking behaviors may be similar to codependent behaviors, my aim is to normalize them somewhat because I believe we all have a tendency to caretake from time to time. As readers will discover, it is when these tendencies become extreme or automatic that we find ourselves giving so much to so many so often that we risk losing sight of ourselves in the process.
To understand the difference between caretaking and caregiving, focus for a minute on the words take and give. Caretakers often have a tendency to swoop in to take charge, take over, or take control of a situation or person in an effort to fix a situation or even a person—often without being asked or without even realizing they’re doing it. When we jump in to rescue someone who doesn’t need or want to be rescued, we run the risk of capsizing the whole ‘relationship boat,’ possibly straining a relationship or even sinking a friendship.
Of course there are times of crisis when ‘swooping’ is just what may be necessary. When someone close to us experiences a health emergency, an accident, a fire or natural disaster, a sudden death in the family, or some other sudden and unexpected catastrophe, the person or persons most affected may be temporarily numb—paralyzed by grief or uncertainty as to where to turn or what to do. But, here again, it comes back to balance and boundaries. Most of us know in our hearts if we are the appropriate ones to rush to the aid of a friend or family member in critical need of help.
There’s no denying that caring for others can make us feel good about ourselves. That’s only natural. Reaching out to others with an open heart and helping hand can bring out the best in us. But things get a little murky when the act of giving care is so ego driven that we don’t feel good about ourselves unless we’re doing something for someone else. Speaking from my own experience, caretakers need to be needed; they need to be liked. When I’m in caretaker mode, I’ve caught myself going out of my way to do something I don’t want to do for someone I don’t even like because I want them to think highly of me. In such instances, caring for others becomes more about me than them. Of course, now that I’m a grown-up, I am able to put my feelings and needs aside and help everyone— friend and foe alike—in a pure spirit of love and generosity. And if you believe that. . .
A psychologist friend of mine put it this way: It’s a struggle not to define our worth by how much others need us. It’s everywhere in our culture —in medicine, in politics, in teaching, everywhere — especially when others feed that tendency and project that image by telling us how wonderful and extraordinary we are. Hopefully, when we come to recognize that what people think — both negatively and positively— is not necessarily the way things really are, we let go of the fierce need to be the special one.
I think it helps to think of caretaking as the out-of-balance and ‘self-centered’ behaviors that reflect a person’s deep need to be in control and accepted. On the other hand, caregiving consists of more balanced behaviors that reflect compassion and concern for others. You might say, caretaking is more about getting love, while caregiving is more about giving it.
If you’re like me, you discover that these are not ‘either/or’ behaviors. I find that I can be the poster girl for healthy and compassionate caregiving one day and an example of an unhealthy, controlling, and out-of-balance caretaker on another day, depending on the circumstance or the person. I confess that my caretaker within most often emerges when caring for a close friend or family member. But I’m getting better at recognizing those caretaking and controlling tendencies when they occur. Then I dust myself off, make amends, and remind myself of what I’ve learned and share in this book about the importance of healthy boundaries and mutual respect, maintaining balance, letting go of the need to control, and the need to practice good self-care.”
Cynthia Orange is the author of the Nautilus Award winning book Shock Waves: A Practical Guide to Living with a Loved One’s PTSD, and co-facilitator of a caregivers’ support group. She has written hundreds of articles about addiction, recovery, parenting, PTSD, and caregiving.