Offering care the most natural of gifts

And caring for a sick loved one could be their last and greatest gift to you

careI recently watched a wise young friend give up her dream job, lose contact with friends, abandon writing, delay her wedding and almost lose her fiancé, all to care for her mother who was terminally ill. What started as an obligation to breathe life into her mother’s precious last months became equally life-giving to her.

A few months after her mother died, my friend described how life-changing the experience of caring for her mother was. Of course it was disruptive and hard, but that wasn’t her point. She said caring for mother had shaped her, moulded her as a human in ways that would impact the rest of her life. She said the experience was so valuable and significant that “we should have the right to be caregivers” when life offers us the opportunity.

At first blush, rights and caring for family and friends don’t seem to fit together. But a deeper look suggests they do. A human right is something to which we’re entitled by virtue of being human. Human rights never stand alone. They always come with obligations. Love and obligation are things every natural caregiver understands very well.

There’s nothing more natural and more human than taking care. We were born to care and be cared for. Anyone observing an infant gazing into its parent’s eyes can attest to this. We also see this truth in the rooms of the dying. Caring is who we are; it’s a developmental force that’s propelled by practise, learning and love, and it’s where we most often locate meaning and purpose in our lives.

So how do we support this natural force without supplanting it.

Our consumer- and achievement-oriented society has little appetite for public discussions of frailty or mortality. Consequently, care has been transformed into a commodity, severed from the public good. It’s increasingly perceived as a service to be paid for rather than a natural, human exchange. And even the care work that’s purchased is routinely undervalued and poorly paid.

My friend, now happily married, discovered that her care experiences have made her more present, burnished her and shaped her humanity. It was her mother’s last and greatest gift to her.

It’s time to shine a light on the profound value of caring for both the care receiver and the caregiver so others will know the precious experience they’re about to embark on. It doesn’t make the hard work of caring easier. But it does make the memories sweeter.

And broad recognition of the deeper benefits of caring for everyone involved might just shift our policies, programs and regulations to support this most natural of gifts.

Vickie Cammack is a social innovator who has established ground-breaking organizations dedicated to strengthening community and addressing isolation, including Tyze Personal Networks, Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN) and the Family Support Institute of British Columbia. Her unique response to the isolation and loneliness that underpins some of our most intractable social problems – a network model of care – has been adopted internationally. She is a member of the Order of Canada.

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