Carer, Caregriver, Care Partner?

Whether we like it or not, our experience is often shaped by our language. Most of the changes we see over the past century have been fueled by our desire to show greater respect for all individuals. For example, while it was “fine” to use the term “handicapped” several decades ago, these days I am not even sure if “individuals with a disability” is “good enough.”

In general, I welcome these changes. That said, I am having a hard time with my own reaction to the term “care partner” as opposed to “caregiver.” In the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, the word of choice used to be “carer.” In North America, “caregiver” has been around for several decades. (When I was a child, it was perfectly fine to use the term “caretaker.” Apparently, that term has gone out of fashion.)

So, where does “care partner” come from? What does it really mean?

Partnership suggests that there is something mutual about the relationship. It may imply joint decision-making and shared goals. For some people, reframing “caregiving” as “care partnering” allows them to feel more empowered. The emphasis is not on “giving” and “receiving.” Some family members have expressed that when they perceived themselves as “care partners,” they no longer felt like they were “giving up” or “sacrificing” part of themselves as they cared for a loved one. In the ideal world, partnership probably suggests that the care you give will actually be received!

In the “real world” I live in, “caregiving” appears to be more “honest” than “care partnering,” especially when we are talking about family and friends who provide care. I hope this is not going to offend anyone but more often than not, caregiving does not occur in the context of a balanced relationship. A caregiver can indeed be giving without receiving. In fact, a caregiver can be giving while the potential recipient keeps resisting. I am extremely particular when it comes to words. I prefer the term “companion” if we don’t want to focus on “giving” or the “transactional” aspect of caregiving.

Maybe the term “caregiver” will become obsolete one day, maybe it will stay. Perhaps the label really matters to some and not as much to others. Language can shape our experience but if the core of the being is characterized by resilience, it probably won’t make a huge difference whether one is a “caregiver” or “care partner.” So, is it absolutely necessary to throw another jargon into the mix to confuse ourselves?

What are your preferences?

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About C

If you consider volunteering at a luncheon for older adults as my first exposure to the field, I have been in geropsychology for at least twenty years. As family, friend, volunteer, trainee, and professional, I have found myself in adult day care centers, senior centers, senior living facilities, nursing homes, medical and psychiatric wards, hospice, and personal homes of older adults. Wherever I go, be it an orphanage, a museum, a prison, an airport, or a random corner in the neighborhood, issues related to aging and mental health often come to mind. I used to think that I could make a difference only if I became a top-notch researcher, educator, or clinician. As I continue to follow this meandering path, it dawns on me that as a nobody in the field, I can still add my light to the sum of light by sharing what I know. Over the years, I have "converted" a few very dedicated individuals to focus on aging-related work within their respective disciplines and encouraged a handful more to stay in this field despite its winding course. I believe by bringing aging and mental health issues to the foreground, we will amass a stronger force to promote advocacy, research, and quality care.
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