Caregiver – Playing a Crucial Role, Yet Held in Low Esteem
Originally published September 5, 2017 in The Caregiver Space
Though it has many settings, and spans many decades, my new novel, Women Within, takes place primarily in a retirement home. The three main characters in the book, a ninety-four-year-old woman who slips back and forth through the years of her life, and her two aides, drive the plot.
I wanted to write a novel about the female experience. That meant addressing a lot of challenging issues like sexual assault; a woman’s status compared to a man’s (always lower); being an unwed mother; the impossible standards of the ideal female body that no one can really meet. These themes are woven throughout the book, along with another that at first I didn’t specifically identify.
In Women Within, this particular subtext is caregiving. The old lady awash in the past is Constance Maynard, a retired professor of history. Eunice Fitch, a fifty-something recluse with a big heart, has been taking care of people since she was a teenager. Her need to coddle, cosset, and even pamper is great on the job, but when it comes to relations with men, it’s a disaster. She enables brutes and swindlers without even realizing it. That’s her personal subtext—the downside of being too willing to soothe.
Eunice’s partner on her daily rounds is Sam (formerly Samantha) Clark whose big hands and strong muscles make her an ideal worker. Though only in her twenties, Sam, too, has done her share of caregiving, primarily to her damaged mother, protecting her in what she will soon learn has always been a vicious lie, a concoction about how Sam came into the world.
These women are poorly paid, almost as invisible as their charges. Maybe it’s because their work requires no special training, just a certain nuanced sensitivity about what people need, which can’t really be taught. Maybe it’s because they don’t generate income or profits for their employers. A retirement home makes its money from its residents, and while they state a commitment to a certain level of quality care, presumably ensured by people like Eunice and Sam, that standard is often goes unmet.
I speak from personal experience. My father spent his final years in a retirement community that was touted as having exquisite amenities. He wasn’t mistreated, but nor was he nurtured. He was sustained. As his interest in life declined, as he disconnected from people, the interest shown him also seemed to wane. Human psychology no doubt suggests that one is likely to be more engaged with someone who shows a reciprocal interest. That said, would not that engagement be encouraged with a bigger paycheck?
Caring for young children requires a great deal of engagement, too, which I suspect most people bring to that job, but those folks earn pretty little. Again, the problem seems to be the idea of generating income. Teaching a child the alphabet, or the basics of proper behavior and courtesy towards others is essential, but doesn’t generate income the way writing a computer code might, or selling a house in a hot market. This is short-sighted. Many studies show that children who get good quality care when young go on to be good wage earners and successful citizens. It’s a long-term commitment where kids are concerned, yet the people who nurture them outside of the home aren’t valued very much.
I’m sure much of this has to do with the fact that by and large caregivers are women. I suspect that the low status jobs that men land in, like unskilled physical labor, pay more. I could make this a point of research, of course. I could dust off my Economics degree, and polish up my MBA, and make a good, thorough study, but then where would my fictional characters be? Waiting for me to fill them in and round them out.
And that returns me to my three retirement home ladies. Before Constance goes downhill once and for all, she decides to turn her former home into a community center to help disadvantaged women. After her death, Eunice launches a home care business of her own, putting to good use everything she’s learned in over thirty years at Lindell. And Sam – well, Sam’s an interesting case. The retirement home seems to be just a step along a widening path. She comes into a little money, and decides to go back to school to study poetry. Her favorite author is Sylvia Plath, whose suicide reinforces for Sam that unhappy marriages are perilous things, even as she finds herself falling in love, and preparing to take on yet another caregiving role.
I close with a plea for caregivers everywhere. Give them their due. See their value, not just in a private setting, but in our larger society. Consider where we would all be without them. Understand that not everything is purely tangible. Consider the intangible, the behind-the-scenes efforts that build character and promote empathy. Imagine what the world would be like, with more people garnering well-deserved respect for the service they perform every day for another human being.