Caring Currents

Is There Such a Thing as a "Caregiving Instinct"?

Last updated:

June 25, 2009
String of hearts
Image by aussiegall used under the creative commons attribution license.

Are you a natural-born caregiver or is the role an uncomfortable fit? The answer doesn't necessarily correlate to the quality of the care you provide. Anybody can be a good caregiver. But clearly some people have an inborn gift for knowing what to do and how to behave with ease in care situations. They take pleasure and pride in caregiving "“ which helps them stress less about it. (Or at least grants them a longer fuse.)

That's good news for the rest of us "“ because we can crib from their special traits to help improve our own caregiving relationships and manage our own stress levels. Notice I said "rest of us," meaning myself included. I'm your classic un-natural caregiver. Whether looking after my parents or my four kids, I'm glad to do it "“- but I've always been the type who's more comfortable using my head than my hands, more at ease talking to doctors than talking to patients. I have a rough time with bodily fluids and bedside manner. I don't think I'm alone.

I thought about the caregiving instinct while last weekend watching my brother and his wife, with whom not one but three elders over 70 live (my 87-year-old dad and her parents). Both of these amazing people have the knack. And I do learn from them.

Here are some of the traits to borrow from natural-born caregivers:

  • They're mellow and good-humored.

The number of times I've seen my brother diffuse a tough situation with a joke astounds me. Whether he's cajoling my dad into using a walker ("Think of it as a new set of wheels!") or teasing him through stretching exercises, Paul's ability to turn awkward moments into light ones is astounding. And inspiring, because it almost always works.

  • They always see the person behind the illness.

Because the conditions that can affect our relatives are often frightening and unfamiliar, it's easy to feel like you're dealing with Dementia or Cancer or Stroke, rather than, more accurately, a father with dementia or a mother with cancer or a grandparent who's had a stroke.

Those with the caring instinct respond to the illness, and work around it, but interact with the person as if the ailments weren't even there. Watch how they talk to the person:

  • Never around them or over their heads.
  • In a natural voice (not too loud, not singsongy, not patronizing).
  • With eye contact.
  • With easy physical contact (a reassuring hand on the shoulder, gently touching the knee).

  • They're motivated by yesterday and today, not tomorrow.

This is an interesting dimension unique to elder-care. With child caregiving, your efforts have a selfish dimension; along with your selfless acts of caring is a twinge of ambition, of helping to realize potential in a new person you're shaping. With an older person, the caregiver rewards are different. You're acknowledging a past relationship (that sense of "giving back") and you're mining the silver bits of the here and now, the satisfaction of knowing you're making someone happy, or at least comfortable and respected.

  • They're patient (or at least, they keep their impatience to an imperceptible slow burn).

Act less stressed, feel less stressed seems to be the mantra of those with the caregiving instinct. Or at least that's how it looks on the outside.

  • They're seemingly unflappable.

Natural caregivers take most things in stride, I think, because they have an inner confidence that lets them take it one hurdle at a time. They calmly know where to go for help, gather lots of information, and ultimately trust their gut.

Any other qualities to add to this list?

If these traits describe you:

Hats off! Being a natural at caregiving is rewarding and inspiring and a bouquet of other lofty adjectives.

Just beware that these good qualities can have a flip side: Instinctive caregivers can be so selfless and slow to stress that they risk their own well being by not putting themselves first often enough. And that's a whole 'other post.

If you're not an instinctive caregiver:

Hats off to you, too. Because it's never easy to do what doesn't come naturally to us. Whether we're born with the knack or struggle through out of happenstance, I think this quote from Lord Byron covers us all: "There is no instinct like that of the heart."