Lovingkindness: Caregiving versus Caretaking

People often ask why I’m so interested in teaching yoga to women cancer survivors if I am not one myself. My Yoga for Cancer teacher, Tari Prinster, has asked me time and again to explain to teacher training groups how I tap into my experiences of living with a hearing loss to connect to Women Cancer Survivors. In a word, my answer is empowerment.

A twelfth century Jewish scholar, Moses Maimonides, invented the eight levels of giving. The highest level is achieved by a donor that anonymously gives adequately so that the recipient can help themselves. In other words, the donor empowers the recipient to look after themselves. Caretaking, on the other hand, is an apparent kindness that lends the donor a sense of superiority and the recipient a sense of inferiority. Caretaking is patronizing. Author Melody Beattie writes in the Language of Letting Go that “caretaking doesn’t work.” A caretaker implies to the intended recipient that she is incapable of taking care of herself. Caretaking fosters resentment.

The caretakers’ selfish intention is to feel good about having performed a “noble deed.” Perhaps some of them are so out of touch with their inner core of basic goodness as to be unaware of their own intentions and actions. Some learn from the results of their actions, and the unfortunate repeats their errors. I contend with such caretakers every day. The postal clerk or waiter who responds with American Sign Language after I’d clearly established that it’s fine to speak to me. The family member or friend who repeats what the museum tour guide is saying, distracting me from both the guide and the exhibit. The ex-husband who couldn’t grasp that, instead of acting on assumption, it’s always best to ask first whether I needed any help. To the recipient, acting based on assumption feels condescending. It irritates. While the ex-husband ultimately burned through my patience and wound up with an earful of angry frustration along with the divorce, most people receive a gentle admonishing.

Museums with guided visits only are particularly challenging, leaving me with three futile options: lip read the tour guide the entire time and miss viewing the exhibit, feign listening to the tour guide to view the exhibit and miss out on all the juicy information, or some percentage of the two extremes. When I visited Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Batlló in Barcelona four years ago, I was faced with the audio tour barrier: headsets are at best awkward with a hearing aid, and there are no lips to read, rendering the narrative as gibberish to me. When I showed the employee my hearing aid, she smiled and held up a printed transcript, offering, “català, castellano, o English?” This option delighted me: this is how you empower a deaf or hard-of-hearing person! Between reading and viewing, the tour took me longer than a hearing person. Still, I was thrilled to benefit one hundred percent from the visit.

Self-guided tour through Casa Batlló.

Self-guided tour through Casa Batlló.

Another example of empowering a deaf or hard-of-hearing person: monitors showing the announcements that are blaring through the PA system in public transportation systems, be they on a bus or metro, in the station or at an airport.

Five years ago, my connecting flight in London was among many that were cancelled in the wake of the French flight controllers’ strike. None of British Airways’ monitors showed this information. In the chaotic terminal, I finally found an employee who obtained the update on my flight and guided me through immigration and customs to a single kilometers-long airline customer service queue. Rumors flew about getting booked on flights going through circuitous routes around Europe taking three or more days to arrive at the final destination, from what I gathered via conversations with people in front of and behind me. Three hours later, it was my turn. I calmly explained what had happened. The agent realized this situation had put British Airways in hot water and found a direct flight the very next morning that had one vacant seat left. She filed a complaint on my behalf to call British Airways’ attention to this glaring gap in accommodations for people with disabilities to prevent future mishaps, and went above and beyond her call of duty to meet me on her day off work at the terminal the very next morning to guide me from check-in all the way to the boarding gate lest there be a repeat of the previous day’s fiasco. Hopefully, British Airways at London Heathrow Airport has since improved their monitors to display the announcements as they are spoken via the PA system.

So what do these two stories exemplify? Identify the barrier. If you’re unsure, ask the person to whom you wish to give care. Determine, with that person’s active participation, how you can help. Caregiving empowers the recipient to overcome the barrier. Caregiving fosters compassion and gratitude.

Through teaching Yoga for Women Cancer Survivors, I empower the students through an adapted posture, breathing, and meditation practice in an environment of like-minded people. They can take various aspects of this practice to the oncologist’s waiting room, while in an uncomfortably vulnerable position on the radiation table, or during the hours of chemotherapy infusion. They can practice a restorative supine bound angle pose

Students in restorative supported supine bound angle pose

Students in restorative supported supine bound angle pose

or alternate nostril breathing to alleviate recurrence anxiety while waiting for their annual scan results. Some treatment side effects render them emotional which the yoga practice can evoke; in class, they know they can let it all out in a safe, nurturing place. After class, they often schmooze, comparing notes on traditional and alternative health care providers, nutrition, treatment side effects and how to deal with them.

But there’s more. Their teacher may not be a cancer survivor, but a survivor of hearing loss. A survivor has encountered and coped with difficulties in their life. Such difficulties present various barriers on a daily basis. A survivor understands that the only way is through, and determines how to best overcome. A survivor figures out what kind of assistance is required in order to look after themselves, from the onset of the obstacle, through the dismantling thereof, to a new normal or another obstacle, and so on.

Caregiving is interrelated. Caregiving reminds us that we are not alone in our daily struggle. Caregiving means we’re all in this together, offering each other a hand, wishing to see everyone succeed. Caregiving empowers the recipient.

Often, when it comes to caring for another – a cancer survivor undergoing the worst of the treatments, for instance, it is paramount to keep taking care of yourself. If you overextend yourself and fail to delegate some of the tasks to folks and friends – a neighbor who gives a ride to and from the next chemo infusion, a friend who brings groceries, a cousin who watches over the cancer survivor so you can have some down time – you could wind up failing your cancer survivor loved one by getting sick from exhaustion to continue with the caregiving. Such instances are a good example of the dangerous gray area between caretaking and caregiving.

Look after yourself so you can continue to give care to others. Your body needs your mind and your intuition to make the right decisions for physical, intellectual and emotional health. Give care by sharing your knowledge, experiences, and abilities with others to empower them to look after themselves. Lovingkindness is a balance of being there for yourself and for the world around you, empowering all beings.

© 2015 Amy Dara Hochberg.

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