As a professor of social work, and director of the Social Work in Health Care curriculum, I saw an area where we were not preparing our students for the work they were beginning to do. As my students, most of them women, went into their field placements, they seemed like soldiers whose preparation had been for peacetime maneuvers, rather than for surviving the rapid fire demands of the real world.
I knew that caregiving was a hazardous occupation, made more so by the fact that many professional caregivers have multiple caregiving roles, including non-paying ones that begin when they get home. So I set out to write a book about self-care for caregivers. And with a background as a dancer, I knew that self-care begins, and to some extent ends, in the body. Dancers know that their bodies are their instruments, and if they do their bodies in, they’re done.
And I saw my students doing their bodies in, skimping on sleep and grabbing food on the run as they did two jobs – taking care of their young children, and performing in a field placement simultaneously. My academic department, as do all other professional schools, focused on the mental and intellectual aspects of performing the professional caregiving role, ignoring the skills involved in using one’s self in a sustainable way.
I wish I could say that in the intervening years things have improved for caregivers. Professions which involve caregiving are still the lowest paid and their skills the least regarded. After all the research and documentation of Compassion Fatigue and Secondary Trauma, organizations which employ caregivers of all varieties, (unlike first responders in the fire and police departments) offer little assistance for their employees regarding these occupational hazards. One foundation executive who funds many non-profits in our community told a colleague of mine when he asked about maintaining the health of human service workers, “Nobody cares about that. There are so many candidates for these jobs that if workers burn out, they can just get new ones.”
Those of us who care for others must save some of that compassionate energy for ourselves. Sometimes, even those we love would tell us that. “What do you wish your mother had done differently?” I used to ask the college students I counseled at the university health center. Their answers, “Taken better care of herself, “Had more of her own life, or, ”done more for herself, instead of just for me.”