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Caregiving & Goodness

I had the honour of attending the graduation ceremony at North-West University this week where Prof. Monica Ferreira received an honorary doctorate. Prof. Monica is a legend and pioneer in research on ageing. Now retired, Monica found the Institute of Longevity Center at UCT.

Much of the focus of her work was on the role that Elders play in families and communities, and to change the focus away from Elders being a burden on society, to a focus on the important role and contribution that they make. In the company of some of the greatest Gerontologists across the world, it was fascinating to listen to the conversations that now do the rounds in academic circles. It made me return to my fascination with the mystery of ageing.

Harari, author of “Homo Deus” and “Homo Sapiens”, and now of “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” writes extensively about the fourth industrial revolution, and how artificial intelligence will change the world, especially with robots taking over the work that people do. He makes one exception, and that is the work of Caregiving. It is the one job that he cannot foresee being taken over by AI robots. Interesting…

In academic circles, there is now at last a very strong move away from the marginalising of older people. First of all, there is no consensus on what the term “old” really means. We no longer look at “old” as a chronologically determined factor. We also do not equate ‘old’ with ‘frail’, ‘in need of care’ or even necessarily ‘vulnerable’. This shifts away from the linear (Western) trajectory of ageing towards a more circular (African/Majority World), holistic look at our life course proposes that we dip in and out throughout our lives, sometimes contributing, sometimes not. We might enter the labour force for long periods of time, but we might also step aside from it and contribute on many other levels. Being teachers, caregivers for children or grandchildren, creating art, writing or simply being companions. Definitive in the process is that we never ‘retire’ in a way that we start withdrawing from society and no longer contribute.

The minute people who have done a lot of living start retreating or retiring, one can see a distinct decline in their well-being. Taking on the stigmatization of being a burden, not having a purpose and having no reason to get up in the morning is often a slow death sentence. We spoke at length about Elders in poor communities’ pensions being used by their entire extended family. Is this abuse? I am not so sure – for many Elders it is their honour to share what they have with children and family in true Ubuntu style. While we cry abuse, Elders often feel that they can provide and give something towards the education of their grandchildren perhaps.

All very well, I hear a lot of people mumble. What about people who are really old and frail and need “frail care”? What contribution do they make? I have said this before – in my opinion, they are indeed the most precious contributors in a society that on so many levels have lost their humanity. Their contribution is to teach us about “caregiving and goodness”.

In his remarkable speech at UCT, Prof Arthur Kleinman (medical anthropologist) talks about his own journey in having to care for his wife, and how “the medical fraternity has trained caregiving and goodness OUT of people”.

Often when I listen to the conversations of people who have to care for a (one would think) loved one, I am astounded at the stories of horror. I know that it is not easy, I have seen and heard and felt the pain of being a Caregiver. However, the minute we start exploring the gift of truly being present with the person who needs our support, there is a shift in understanding. The vulnerable person living with forgetfulness or different abilities becomes our true teacher, holding up the mirror to our humanness, which is absolutely NOT a superpower. Being human is feeling the agony, shedding tears of anger and frustration, being tested and trying to the end of what we think our tether is. So often Caregivers think that they are not allowed to feel hurt and angry and frustrated by the care journey. If you think that you are not allowed to feel this, you are indeed a robot guided by artificial intelligence. Heaven forbid that we should ever have Caregiving robots that do not feel.

It is in this embracing of the role of Caregiver that we often discover our true selves, that we grow, and that we indeed become more human. That is the role and gift of the vulnerable in our society.

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