Being a writer and editor, I take the meaning and usage of words very seriously. Maybe that’s why of late I have found myself pondering the meaning and usage of the words “caregiver” and “caretaker.” To me, a caregiver is obviously someone who takes care of someone in need; a caretaker is someone who takes care of a property.
Sure enough, when I checked merriam-webster.com, this is the definition I found for “caregiver”: a person who provides direct care (as for children, elderly people, or the chronically ill). Similarly, when I looked up the word “caretaker,” I found this: one that takes care of the house or land of an owner who may be absent. But I was surprised to also find other definitions: one temporarily fulfilling the function of office. And perhaps the most important definition: one that gives physical or emotional care and support.
Actually, I have never really cared for either word. When I picture a caregiver, I picture a no-nonsense middle-aged female wearing a smock with dancing elephants on it. When I picture a caretaker, I picture a grizzled old man standing stoically in front of a dilapidated farm building. (Sorry, that’s just me.) Perhaps worst of all, the picture both words create for me is of someone who is impersonal and detached.
Technically, I am a caregiver/caretaker. I clock 22 hours a week providing direct care for my elderly mother and countless more hours on phone calls, paperwork, errands, and mental exercises. But I do not wear smocks with dancing elephants on them, and I’m not old and grizzled (at least not yet!!). So what does that make me? How about a caring daughter. (The world is full of them – along with caring sons, grandchildren, and spouses.)
Similarly, my mom’s “professional” caregivers/caretakers do not wear smocks with dancing elephants on them, and they are not old and grizzled. They put their heart into everything they do. That is just one reason I do not call them caregivers/caretakers. I call them helpers. (They support not just my mom but me as well.)
Based on what Merriam-Webster has to say, the terms “caregiver” and ‘caretaker” are really interchangeable. And now I definitely don’t like either one. Particularly for the elderly, they imply that the person receiving care is an inanimate object - an empty vessel just waiting to be filled with some sort of pre-defined care. And they imply that the caregiver/caretaker only cares in a sort of professional, arm’s length way. In reality the relationship is complex and interactive, even if the interactions are on the most basic of levels, and they are always emotional and heart-filled.
So at my mom’s house, those who attend to my mom are helpers. And I am just a caring daughter. For her – and for
us – words matter.