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Caring for the Caregivers

We all need caregivers at some point in our lives. As helpless babies, we wouldn’t survive without caregivers. When we’re sick or dying, what a blessing it is to be held in the tender care of someone who touches us with warmth and love. It’s a special talent to know how to be with someone who is helpless and/or in pain—a soft talent, not something crowed about or lauded in art or even in everyday life. It requires real compassion to stay present in the face of another’s pain. It requires spiritual maturity to turn toward the pain and human need instead of away from it. People with this talent are a blessing to those of us who are fortunate enough to be in their presence. We need to cultivate and take care of this precious resource.

Although I had an elite liberal arts education, I always gravitated toward the simple, hands-on aspect of caregiving. For years I worked as a nurse’s aide, and then as a musician and entertainer in nursing homes. This work carried me through a difficult time in my life. I was going through a divorce, becoming a single mother, and unsure how I was going to make it on my own. As challenging as my life was, these women and men who had been left in nursing homes to die were undergoing far greater challenges. I had lost my husband and security, they had lost everything. It was a strong practice in gratitude for what I had and for the possibility of finding joy in life, even in the midst of hell.

When I was working in nursing homes I met a number of nurse’s aides who saw their work as a calling. I remember a young women who told me that she loved caring for the elders. She said she saw her grandmother’s face in each patient. I understand why she loves this work. It is a privilege to spend time with those who have lived a full life. There is a satisfying intimacy in taking care of another person’s basic needs, touching them and feeding them. And the gratitude that is often expressed is heartfelt and healing. Each person contains a story, wisdom to be mined, a bit of magic. Of course, there are those who work as nurse’s aides simply because they need a job and have no heart for caretaking, but you can find that in any line of work.

A year later, I ran into this same nurse’s aide who loved caring for others. She was working at a market bagging groceries. She told me that although she loved taking care of people in nursing homes, she couldn’t afford to stay in the industry and that the system was wearing her down. Bagging groceries at the market paid more and offered a friendlier working environment than caring for the elderly in the nursing home! Pure gold washed down the drain.

An engaged Buddhist path brings our practice off the meditation cushion and into the world. Since suffering exists everywhere that humans reside, there is no end to places we can practice compassionate attention. Some practitioners go to the prisons and some to the streets, some to the homeless shelters and some to the political system. Working with each of these populations offers unique rewards. They all carry the common burden of our collective suffering. The unique challenge in serving caregivers is that they are scattered everywhere. Caregivers don’t really congregate. They are in their homes taking care of children, or in other people’s homes, or in institutions. Their invisibility makes them a challenging segment of society to support. In today’s world, caregivers often work two or three jobs in addition to taking care of their own homes, children, and elders. Many are single parents, many can’t even afford rent. If they can afford rent, it is often at the expense of other necessities such as healthcare, a healthy diet, and rest.

Just as racism is a systemic problem, the devaluing of caregivers is also a systemic problem. Caregiving does not build capital or leave traces that can be bought and sold, so the work is demeaned and low-paying, if paid at all. It is difficult to impossible for a caregiver to escape poverty, especially when they have children and are the sole source of income. These caregivers are at the very bottom of the social ladder. They are paid the least for their work and given the least respect. They are invisible until we need them. Then they are the most important people in the world. Working alone, caregivers have no power. But in a group their value can be demonstrated. One group in the United States working on this problem of a living wage is the Domestic Workers Alliance. Serving caretakers, outside of lobbying for better wages and working conditions on the political level, presents unique challenges. How do we lend dignity to this profession?

My love of caregiving has morphed into a love for caregivers—the mothers and grandmothers, women and men who keep their families alive and put their own needs aside to serve others. When applying my Zen training to the issue, it is clear that the problem of disrespect for caregivers comes down to a disrespect for everyday life activities, such as chopping vegetables, making the bed, or cleaning the toilet. In most cultures, these activities are deemed less valuable than painting a painting, writing an advertising jingle, or manipulating numbers. Raising children, caring for the elderly, and putting food on the table are essential elements of every human life. In Zen, these life-sustaining activities are honored as practice opportunities. There is no intrinsic spiritual value in painting a painting or cleaning a toilet. The spiritual value is in your state of mind as you perform these tasks.

Caregivers sustain all of us and deserve our support in every way we can imagine. Politically and economically, they deserve a living wage; socially they deserve our respect; spiritually they deserve to be seen as more than just servants. They are human beings as capable of awakening as anyone else—perhaps even more capable of experiencing an awakened mind due to their life of selfless service.

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Awakening at Home

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