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How to Understand Caregiving Roles

caregiver helping elder in wheelchari

Roles are positions we occupy in the social world. Roles are central to our human relationships as well as our place in society.

Consider these famous words from William Shakespeare:

  • All the world’s a stage,
  • And all the men and women merely players;
  • They have their exits and their entrances;
  • And one man in his time plays many parts…

Shakespeare proceeds to trace the roles a person plays in life, up to and including “the last scene of all,” which he describes as “second childishness…sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”¹

Although Shakespeare paints a grim picture of life’s final act, he’s also keen to observe how declining health conditions force role changes for people at the end of their lives.

“Care receiver” is among life’s least coveted roles.

And we know that caregivers don’t exist without care receivers.

In Chapter Two of When Caregiving Calls, I describe caregiving by using the metaphor of a stage play, borrowed from the work of sociologist Erving Goffman.² In a caregiving play:

  • the care receiver is the star of the show;
  • the script is written by the care receiver’s health conditions;
  • and the caregiver is a supporting actor.

With caregiving, nobody knows exactly when the curtain will fall and this play will end—not the audience, not the critics, not the supporting actor, not even the star of the show. We do know, however, that when the show is over, the star performer may not be there to take a bow.

While every caregiving storyline is unique, the care receiver and caregiver are always, respectively, the primary and secondary roles in an unfolding drama.

By understanding the roles implicated in caregiving, the caregiver is able to make adjustments to an emerging caregiving story. In making these adjustments, the caregiver learns how to fulfill a supporting role that is exclusively for the care receiver.

As new dimensions of a care-based relationship evolve over time, both caregiver and care receiver adapt their positions but continue to be present for one another.

A reciprocal understanding naturally emerges. Aware of one another’s obvious imperfections, caregiver and care receiver develop a mutual acceptance and, at times, admiration for each other. The roles of caregiving thereby produce a symbiotic relationship that has the potential to reward both of the principal actors.

Consider the significance of ROLES in your personal caregiving story:

  • How would you describe your caregiver role? How do you feel about it?
  • How would you describe the role of your care receiver? How do you think your care receiver feels about it?
  • Take some time to write your caregiving script. What is the storyline? What are some of the lines your role calls on you to speak?

“Understanding Roles” is a component of Dr. Blight’s Model of Caregiver Resilience. By examining a care situation in light of the five “R” words (Roles, Relationships, Realities, Rewards, and Readiness) in the model, you can identify areas that are causing friction and figure out how best to address those challenges. We are discussing each of the five domains of caregiver resilience, one at a time, over the next few months. Next month’s blog will focus on “Relationships.”

If you’d like to invite Dr. Blight to speak to your group, please contact us.

¹Bloom, H., 2004. William Shakespeare’s As you like it. Philadelphia: Chelsea House.
²Goffman, E., 1959. The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.