We all need caregivers at one time or another in our lives. As helpless babies, we would not survive without caregivers. When we are sick or dying, what a blessing to be in the hands of someone who touches us with warmth and love. It is a special skill to know how to be with someone who is helpless and/or in pain – a soft skill, not something sung or praised in art or even in everyday life. It takes real compassion to stay present in the face of the pain of others. It takes spiritual maturity to turn to pain and human need instead of away from it. People with this talent are a blessing to those of us who are lucky enough to be in their presence. We must cultivate and care for this precious resource.
Although I received an elite liberal arts education, I have always been drawn to the simple and practical aspect of caregiving. For years, I worked as a nurse's aide, then as a musician and animator in retirement homes. This work allowed me to go through a difficult period of my life. I was going through a divorce, becoming a single mother, and I didn't know how I was going to manage on my own. As difficult as my life was, those women and men who had been left to die in nursing homes faced far greater challenges. I had lost my husband and security, they had lost everything. It was a strong practice of gratitude for what I had and for being able to find joy in life, even in the middle of hell.
When I worked in nursing homes, I met several caregivers who considered their work a vocation. I remember a young woman who told me that she loved taking care of elders. She said she saw her grandmother's face in every patient. I understand why she loves this job. It is a privilege to spend time with those who have lived full lives. There is a satisfying intimacy in caring for another person's basic needs, touching and nurturing them. And the gratitude that is often expressed is heartfelt and healing. Each person contains a story, a wisdom to be tapped, a bit of magic. Of course, there are those who work as health care aides simply because they need a job and don't have the heart to take care of them, but you can find that in no any job.
A year later, I met this same caregiver who loved caring for others. She worked in a market bagging groceries. She told me that although she loved caring for people in nursing homes, she couldn't afford to stay in the industry and the system was wearing her down. Bagging groceries at the market paid more and provided a friendlier work environment than caring for elderly people in a retirement home! Pure gold washed in the sewers.
A committed Buddhist path takes our practice out of the meditation cushion and into the world. Since suffering exists wherever humans reside, there is no end to the places where we can practice compassionate attention. Some practitioners go to prisons and some to the streets, some to homeless shelters and some to the political system. Working with each of these populations offers unique rewards. They all bear the common burden of our collective suffering. The unique challenge in serving caregivers is that they are scattered all over the place. Caregivers don't really come together. They are at home taking care of the children, or with other people, or in institutions. Their invisibility makes them a difficult segment of society to support. In today's world, caregivers often work two or three jobs in addition to caring for their own homes, children and elders. Many are single parents, many cannot even afford to pay rent. If they can pay rent, it is often at the expense of other necessities such as health care, healthy food and rest.
Just as racism is a systemic problem, the devaluing of caregivers is also a systemic problem. Caregiving does not create capital or leave traces that can be bought and sold, so the work is humiliated and poorly paid, if at all. It is difficult, if not impossible, for a caregiver to escape poverty, especially when they have children and are the only source of income. These caregivers are at the very bottom of the social ladder. They are paid the least for their work and receive the least respect. They are invisible until we need them. So they are the most important people in the world. Working alone, caregivers have no power. But in a group, their value can be demonstrated. In the United States, a group working on this living wage issue is the Domestic Workers Alliance. Serving guards, outside of lobbying for better wages and working conditions at the political level, presents unique challenges. How to give dignity to this profession?
My love of caregiving grew into a love for caregivers – the mothers and grandmothers, the women and men who keep their families alive and put their own needs aside to serve others. Applying my Zen training to the question, it's clear that the problem of disrespect for caregivers boils down to a lack of respect for activities of daily living, such as cutting vegetables, making the bed, or cleaning the toilet. In most cultures, these activities are considered less valuable than painting a picture, writing an advertising jingle or manipulating numbers. Raising children, caring for the elderly and putting food on the table are essential parts of all human life. In Zen, these vital activities are honored as opportunities for practice. There is no intrinsic spiritual value in painting a picture or cleaning a toilet. The spiritual value lies in your state of mind when performing these tasks.
Caregivers support us all 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 mere servants. They are human beings as capable of awakening as anyone else – perhaps even more capable of living an awakened mind due to their life of selfless service.