Monday, November 7, 2011

Reflections from a Caregiver, part 1: Independence

 I work at a few group homes for adults with cognitive and physical disabilities. It's extremely satisfying work and makes me appreciate every day my own personal health. The past few days I've spent an unusually large amount of time at work and it got me thinking; I concocted this idea of a two-part series of essays on dependence and independence, and how each is a beautiful thing in its own way. Thank you in advance for allowing me to muse.

I'll start with independence, because that's the easy one. I know it's not going to take a lot of work on my part to convince you that independence is a beautiful thing. For the purpose of this writing I don't mean any sort of political or financial independence but simply the ability to function without the assistance of others. Not requiring or relying on others (as for care or livelihood), as Merriam-Webster would tell you. The ability to clean and cook for yourself, provide your own care, go where you wish to go without someone else taking you there. Things we are accustomed to and at times take for granted.

The stated mission of my agency is to “help people improve the quality of their lives.” I love this wording. We do not improve the quality of people's lives for them. We work to give them the ability to improve their own lives. The distinction here is so important. My goal in work is to allow my clients to be as independent as possible, and then complete for them the tasks they can't otherwise. This sounds lazy but in a lot of ways it's more difficult than just doing something for someone. Anyone who has helped a child learn how to read knows the patience involved in watching someone struggle at something which comes easily to you without interfering. But it is what needs to be done, because independence is such a beautiful thing.

Independence and freedom are commonly linked words. Another good choice would be “opportunity.” The less you need someone to care for you, the more you can do. That's obvious. It also gives you control of your life. In college I studied music education, and in my education classes we learned about Choice Theory. This idea (created by William Glasser) stated that there are five human needs, and all of our actions are a result of trying to achieve them. These needs are:
  1. Survival
  2. Love/belonging
  3. Power/significance
  4. Freedom
  5. Fun/enjoyment
Independence in the way that I'm discussing it falls into both categories 3 and 4. It is power in the sense that if you can do something for yourself, no one can hold you back from doing that. It is freedom in that you are not limited in your ability to live your life.

I work for a man who can't cook himself dinner, can't drive, can't handle his own finances, and can't articulate complex ideas. But he can shower himself, get dressed and fold his own laundry. I work for another man who can't move any part of his body except his head and a little bit of his arms. He can't speak at all. But with guidance and patience he can let you know what he needs. I work for a woman who has all sorts of difficulties and setbacks in life. But she's her own guardian, and she'll let you know that, and don't even try to give her advice because she will make her own decisions thank you very much.
Even the smallest levels of independence are empowering. They build our confidence and our sense of self. That is the beauty of independence.

1 comment:

  1. This is awesome Kevin. You highlighted one of the biggest struggles in healthcare. It's difficult because a lot of settings don't foster that patience and diligence. The places I've worked, there are generally so many things going on at once that in order to provide adequate care for all patients/clients in the time allotted, it's tempting (and some might argue required) to just do things for them.

    I agree that it's much more difficult to encourage independence, but not allowing that autonomy and control over one's own life is arguably a violation of basic human rights. I wish I could implant your love for independence and freedom into every caregiver out there, because while I have faith there is a spark of this in everyone, the way things are in healthcare doesn't foster that to grow.

    Kevin, I am obsessed with your morality.