It’s not uncommon for caregivers to say they were drawn to the field or that they were “born to do this work.” Others will tell you that life circumstances brought them to the job, but after some time as a caregiver they began to regard it as a calling. Probably both are true in different degrees in different people. But either way, I think the experience of caregiving incites something within our psyche that might otherwise remain dormant. It can change us.
The notion is supported by science. Psychologist Daniel Goleman, the author of Social Intelligence: the New Science of Human Relationships, tells us that person to person interactions literally shapes the human brain. The more important the relationship, the more profound the effect of those interactions upon the brain. When we help someone we care about, there is a psychoactive reaction in our brains that also connects with the circuitry that makes us feel good. We are biologically wired to learn to love and each experience expands our capacity for kindness and compassion. Dr. Goleman says that the brain area that becomes stronger in this activity is the same area as a parent’s love for a child. We often hear caregivers talk about residents being like family members. This may be one reason why.
I’ve experienced this in my own life. Late last summer, following a speaking engagement at the Pioneer Network annual conference, I was ready was to devote myself full time to promoting this blog and our message. However, two months earlier, my granddaughter, Claire had been diagnosed with Agenesis of the Corpus Callosum (ACC), meaning that she had been born without the part of her brain that connects the two hemispheres. ACC is a developmental disorder that does not have a cure and treatment involves a lot of early intervention. Soon after I got home from the conference, circumstances related to Claire’s treatment and care resulted in me becoming her primary caregiver during the day. I wasn’t planning on taking on this responsibility and I knew it would interfere with my work, but I couldn’t turn my back on my granddaughter when she needed me.
While I was initially motivated by a sense of family obligation, I soon realized that not only did I very much enjoyed my time with Claire, I found the experience quite fulfilling. I discovered that many of the skills and attitudes I developed in my years as a caregiver in LTC were applicable and I quickly became comfortable with this new responsibility. Soon I began working with the in-home therapists from the Early On program and learned about ways we could actively address the developmental challenges presented by Claire’s ACC. I knew that Claire will always have her struggles, but I was encouraged by the idea that we could do things here and now that would make a significant impact later in her life.
It makes sense to me that this transformation from a sense of obligation to experiencing emotional fulfillment to a desire to give more has something to do with Dr. Goleman’s psychoactive reaction. While there is little doubt that this process is enhanced by the expected grandparental bonding, it is quite possible that my daily interactions with Claire conditions my psyche in the same way an exercise regimen conditions the human body.
I believe there are certain universal truths that apply to any form of caregiving, whether it’s practiced within a family, within a facility, or in some other setting. And the first of these truths is that the relationship between the caregiver and care recipient can be a mutually beneficial experience. Under the right conditions, it’s an experience that has the power to change the lives of both parties.