What It Really Means To Be A Caregiver

It’s hard not to smile when you get to spend every day hanging out with some of the greatest people you’ll ever meet. In my time as a caregiver for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, I have experienced some of the highest highs and the lowest lows. Being a caregiver is at once the easiest and hardest job I’ve ever had, but I have never experienced such uninhibited amounts of joy doing anything else.

For a little more than half of my life, I have been happily immersed in this community of people due to the influence of my father, who was a dedicated worker and volunteer for individuals with disabilities. From playing Santa’s helper to attending community events to being a student helper in the Special Education classrooms, my deep love for this work and these people was ingrained in me at a young age. When I finally turned 18, I eagerly started working at the local community services program I had been volunteering with for years.

The transition from volunteer to staff was anything but easy. It wasn’t just fun and games anymore; I was now responsible for the well-being of other individuals, something that catapulted me out of my element, and I had no choice but to get comfortable quickly. Instead of just assisting with activities and goofing off, I was now in charge of personal tasks like assisting with the bathroom and with feeding, and I became privy to some of the most basic yet intimate parts of people.

The first few weeks were the hardest, with me learning personal cares and attempting to strike a balance between worker and friend with my clients. I felt right at home joking around and spending time with these people that I had grown to enjoy so much, but I was required to lay down boundaries I had never thought necessary to put in place before. Instead of just being their peer, I was now their staff, which made personal and professional lines blurry and often confusing. I struggled with this for a long time because it’s difficult for me to think of what I do as just a job—especially when it doesn’t feel like work most of the time.

When I’m at work, I truly feel like I’m in my element and I can be myself 100 percent. My coworkers and my clients are some of the best people I know, so basically every day feels like one non stop party. It took a lot of diverse experiences, from working at a day services to assisting individual clients, for me to finally understand what that balance looks like, and get to the root of what I’m there to do; to create a space for where connections are effortless and every day is meaningful. 

While working with those in need of care comes with a particular set of challenges, what I’ve found equally challenging is the reality of how undervalued and underappreciated this line of work tends to be. Much of this has to do with a system that is massively under-resourced and under-represented. I have worked with parents who have had to appeal courts just to get the funds to pay me for a week of care for their son. I have worked with parents who have struggled endlessly to find quality care for their child, only to come up empty handed and desperate for any help at all. I have been vastly underpaid, but stuck with the job because of my love for what I do.

However, I have also had to acknowledge that sometimes love isn’t quite enough, and I have had to say no to jobs I’m emotionally inclined to do but cannot justify due to the negligible salaries they have been allotted. It is enraging to see the value of these individuals’ lives essentially reduced to a number, and small ones at that. While it is frustrating to recognize that my actions can’t exactly enact immediate and sizable change, I make it a top priority to promote visibility and advocacy of this too often forgotten group of people, and, ultimately, my greatest priority is to provide the most loving and quality care that I can.

Since I entered this line of work, my life has been utterly changed. I’m lucky enough to have found jobs that fulfill me in a plethora of ways. Every day I work, I and the people I care for are filled with an immense joy. I’m so thankful to have found a career where days off are not cause for celebration, but automatic triggers of FOMO.

The people I’ve met in the past few years are some of the most vivacious, hilarious, compassionate, and straight up wonderful people that I’ve ever known. I would consider myself a hater of country music, but when it’s time to “rock out in the morning,” I turn up those honky-tonk tunes because I know it makes my pals happy. I never thought I’d look forward to such mundane tasks as dancing around in a Freedom parking lot and simply pushing someone on a swing, but when I hear the tune of my client’s infectious cackle, these things take on new meaning.

My heart has become enriched in ways I never could have imagined, and I am so thankful to my father for instilling his passion for this work into his daughter. When I see him work with our clients, I can’t help but smile and feel lucky that I had him as an example of what a caregiver should be. I couldn’t imagine spending my time in any other job, despite the struggles and obstacles I encounter. We all have a reason we get up in the morning, and I feel so incredibly thankful that these people are mine.

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