KT Long Read: Tapping into our inner Florence Nightingale

Caregiving is a basic human instinct, not something that only “nurses” and “attendants” do. And even if we don’t  realise that ourselves, there are times when a trigger, a push gets us going

By Anjaly Thomas

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Published: Sat 25 Dec 2021, 9:25 PM

When I was eight years old, I broke an ankle. Nearly three decades later, my knee. And in between the two incidents, I’ve had multiple escapes that involved a broken nose, wrist and rib. But during the time I spent recuperating, I remember the extra concern I received — not just in the way people converged to offer kind words, get-well soon cards or signatures on my knee cast, but in the way friends and family made me feel… emotionally.

It was after my first incident at eight years of age — around the time I heard of Florence Nightingale — that something changed in me. Not finding too many ailing friends to carry a lamp to, I turned to rescuing abandoned dogs, cats and baby birds fallen off trees. It was also the time when my moral science teacher drummed in the importance of kindness.

As an adult, I adopted a cause in Uganda that involved nursing little children infected with HIV. This also meant living with them from time to time, doing everything for them despite knowing that their time on earth was limited. I remember holding a sick baby in my arms wishing there was some way to breathe life back into her — but it was that day the real meaning of ‘kindness-over-righteousness’ dawned on me. To this day, I choose to stand by that phrase. If I must choose between being right and being kind, I always choose the latter.

The Lady with the Lamp summed it up neatly when she said, “I am of certain convinced that the greatest heroes are those who do their duty in the daily grind of domestic affairs whilst the world whirls as amaddening dreidel.”

How a caregiver is born

Trivandrum-based Maya Menon, former journalist and content editor, took to caring for her parents, grandma and elderly aunts nearly a decade ago. Starting off in a supporting role for mom, over the years, she “graduated” to being a full-time family support.

“When you are a child, your parents take care of you. You grow up, the roles reverse,” she says. “This, however, is a gradual transition… it’s something that you do not just realise, and then, suddenly, it is just there.”

It’s when you realise that people you look up to can become old, be plagued by illness and you that are not really prepared for that situation — that’s the moment a caregiver is born. “Thatmoment makes you realise that you need to be there for them, despite all the other plans that you have made in life.”

For Maya, the pandemic came as a blessing in disguise because it allowed her to work full-time from home, while being there 24x7 for her family, including her parents and aunt. “What started as a supporting role — like grocery shopping, financial management and hospital visits — became my primary role as a caregiver over time. My mother was the primary caregiver for grandma and my aunts [who were in their early 90s]. Mom herself was over 65 and it was just normal for me to chip in with support. And with time, the responsibilities grew. Now there are times I feel like I am a warden at an old age home,” she jokes.

Her family employs help but her family is most comfortable with her and sometimes just happy she is around. “On the flip side, if we have a doctor visit planned, I get up at 3am to finish the days’ tasks.”

Maya believes that each one of us hides a tiny Florence Nightingale within us. “Scratch the surface, and you find that you are programmed to care. For people, for pets. It is an instinct. But then, love for them is what makes it a fun activity.”

In the last eight years, her life has changed inexplicably. “Yes. I plan my day according to their needs. I think a million times even before planning a grocery run. But through the course of caring [my grandma passed away recently], I realised that life is all about caring and adaptation. It is more than just self-care. I do try to take an hour of‘me’ time but, really, I am always ready to drop whatever I am doing and jump even if heard the clatter of a teacup.”

It’s willingness that matters...

The life of 44-year-old Eva Langner — a coach and speaker based in Oberursel, Germany — changed one day during the early days of Covid. She recalls that day with horror, but that incident was a turning point inher life. “One year ago, my mum was hit by Covid-19 and spent the next four months in the hospital, including 49 days on the ventilator. She nearly died twice,” Eva recounts. “This was followed by two months of rehab. At the same time when mum was infected, my dad was diagnosed with cancer of the bladder,” she says. “It was like a bad Hollywood flick, but it was also real. So, I moved back in with my parents… Today, mom is fighting her way back to normalcy — she still suffers from Long Covid Syndrome with neuropathy and needs a wheelchair. My sister became my mom’s caregiver, and I became my dad’s.”

Today, Eva and her sister alternate roles. Eva is self-employed and is grateful for that. “If I am required to be away for work, my sister steps in. We are always around, no matter what. Our family has been closely bonded so it is natural that both my sister and I are supporting our parents now as they need us.”

With high numbers of Covid-19 infections in Germany, they decided to limit nursing support as they wanted to cut down external contacts as much as possible. “After all we’ve been through and my dad with his low immune system due to chemotherapy, we just want to get through this situation with everyone in our family staying healthy as possible.”

Eva says she sometimes misses meeting friends and travel, but is also sure that, given the chance, she wouldn’t really give in to her desires. “I am convinced I couldn’t enjoy it, knowing my parents are struggling with their daily life. Those things will come again — and I look forward to that day. For now, I am happy to put them on hold.”

She says she wouldn’t compare myself to Florence Nightingale. “It is all about family and about being there for each other. When you share close bonds with your family, there’s no question of not doing your bit for them when they need you. And care doesn’t need formal training. It needs willingness.”

Being taken care of is priceless

Thirty-three-year-old Leriana Romanovskaya based in Dzerzhinsk, Russia, is a cancer survivor. Whilst being treated for her condition, she realised the importance of being cared for. “I come from a nuclear family and it was when I was at my worst, the realisation of being very lonely struck me. Something changed in me,” she says. “I understood theneed for care which only humans are capable of giving, irrespective of the relationship with one other.”

While recovering, Leriana decided, quite

simply, to care, in whichever way possible, for people who were lonely or sick, especially elderly parents of friends who are away from home. “I find that caring for others actually heals me faster,” she asserts.

“Cancer changed my life but fulfilling a responsibility towards others brought the real change in me. I feel more useful now that I am dividing my time between the homes of two of my friends who are in another country.” From paying electricity bills to buying groceries to being the general handyman around her “adopted” family and making a pot of fresh tea for them — Leriana feels pride in being a pillar of support, physically and emotionally.

“As a caregiver, I provide support to the elderly and the most vulnerable members of society. At the certain age, people need someone to rely on.” While not being a trained caregiver, she is still learning on the job. She says that it is important to recognise that no matter the socialstatus, age or colour, humans are vulnerable to present and future problems. “We will all experience some variations of illnesses and people are glad to receive help and warmth. The feeling of being taken care of is priceless. And I’m glad I can give it. After all, it is love that makesthe world go round,” she says.

Like Leriana, former UAE resident Shruthi Devi, currently pursuing her Master’s in environmental engineering in Thailand, devoted her time nursing a friend recovering from cancer in Dubai for about a year. Although she did have to balance her life and career for this, it was truly a remarkable experience. “A cancer survivor needs more thanjust physical comfort: their mental care and support is equally important,” she says. “I couldn’t stand around and see my friend become an emotional mess… I couldn’t wait till I got a degree in care giving — I jumped right in to become his support.”

According to Shruthi, every one of us hides immense kindness within, which comes into play when the situation arises. “My family says I should have become a doctor, but I think no matter who or where we are, our primary calling as a human being is caring.”

Professional vs personal care

Bangalore-based Roshan Jacob, CEO and founder of advantAGE Seniors (the first long-term care facility in Bangalore) says although family has a primary role to play in caregiving, considering today’s family structure, this might not always be possible.

“Certain illnesses and chronic conditions require professional caregiving,” he explains. “Caregiving is no easy task; it needs time, patience, knowledge and, most importantly, compassion. In today’s world, juggling between the needs of family and professional life makes it impossible for continued caregiving. The caregiver is then likely to suffer from ‘compassion fatigue’ — and, therefore, it is important to get professional help.”

Roshan explains how this works. “Caregiving is personal. Every need is unique and should be treated as such. Older adults, specifically those diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer, infirmity or chronic conditions want to be seen as people, not ‘jobs’. Sound communication and compatibility are essential too. They require emotional support along with physical support.”

Caring is an innate human quality but caregiving is beyond offering a glass of water or fetching groceries, he points out. “Caregiving is complex and multi-dimensional. We don’t know what pushed Florence Nightingale to become a legend, but humanity and compassion have existed for millions of years.”

An overnight transformation

India-based psychologist and programme director of Pallium India Smriti Rana says that caregiving is a role acquired overnight in many household — immediately following a diagnosis, when and roles and responsibilities within the family get recalibrated to make room for the changes.

As a young girl, she had been caregiver to her adoptive mother when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, besides being the primary caregiver to another member of the family with complicated mental health needs.“The etymology of the word ‘care’ lies in ‘caritas’, a Latin word meaning love and compassion. While the need to care arises from a sense of love (or service), in many cultures there is also the element of duty,” she explains. “World over, 80 per cent of caregivers are women. And in many south Asian households, the role falls upon the most disempowered person in the house.”

According to her, lack of proper information and support can, often, make it hard for the caregiver. She recalls the lack of palliative care when her adoptive mother was unwell. “True medicine is not something that is done TO people, but rather done WITH them with the aim of overall physical, mental, emotional, social, financial and spiritual wellbeing,” Smriti points out.

She says that being a professional caregiver, the satisfaction comes in knowing that she is part of the team that assists families navigate very difficult terrain, reduce physical pain and social/financial hardship. “I believe that each one of us will, at some point in our lives, be a caregiver or will require care. And while we all have the capacity to care for another, the circumstances under which we become caregivers, and the support and information available to us determines the quality ofcare we can provide.”

A language for kindness

As social animals, we need kindness to survive, for we are never self-sufficient at birth or in old age or at any time in between and expect, naturally the, same kindness we give to others. We respond to it — whether that is shown through touch, words or action. Kindness is not a theory, it is a reality all living beings understand.

My own experience with this, although mostly short term, cemented this belief.

On a very basic level, kindness is showing consideration to others. This gesture always has a universal appeal, and, therefore, when a rather peculiar situation arose, like having to nurse my partner’s former wife, albeit for a short period of time, I took it head on. The only thing that was on top of my mind when making this decision were the lessons from my moral science classes. “Always choose kindness over being right.” In that moment, the complexity of human relationships paled infront of a human need. And care finally won — both hearts and illness.

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