I didn't begin my professional career as a caregiver until I was in my late 50's. Yet thinking back, there were many indications that I had the caregiver personality - some as far back as I can remember. In this booklet, I muse over those early indications with the hope that it will inspire others who might want to begin their work as a caregiver a little earlier than I did.
When I told my husband that I wanted to get some chickens as pets, he looked at me as though I was crazy. Chickens? I've always loved chickens. In fact, I've always loved animals. I loved watching them, listening to them and, of course, taking care of them. My first favorite book was none other than the original "Bambi." My pets were never the ordinary ones, though, and they were usually rescued animals.
I had a rabbit that I rescued from a water crock on our rabbit farm. He had a broken leg. I splinted it, wrapped it and named him Squirt. (Male rabbits have a nasty habit of trying to "anoint" everything.) We had in excess of 600 rabbits. You'd think that was enough to take care of. I was up early in the morning and out to the barn to take care of them. But Squirt was different. He needed me in a way the others didn't. He needed special care. In case you think all kids need something to occupy their mind…I was 17 years old. I didn't need boyfriends. I had animals to take care of.
In my senior year at Bentonville High School, I got up every morning to milk the cow. It didn't matter what the weather was. Every morning at 5:30 I woke early enough to shut off the alarm before it woke anyone else. Bambi, the cow, was out there waiting for me, hungry and I imagined, hurting with an udder full of milk.
On weekends I cleaned the barn. No one told me to do it. I wanted it to be clean for the cow. Others could have milked the cow, but I wanted to do it. I didn't simply milk her and walk away. I talked to her; massaged her udder with ointment after I milked; and "trained" her to poop outside the barn.
I continued to take care of Squirt and my cat, Kitt. When a car ran over Kitt, I buried him and cried over his grave. I didn't just love animals, though. I felt responsible for them. I was their caregiver.
Indication #1 of a caregiver personality is the love and desire to care for animals.
When I was 8 years old, we lived in Paradise Valley, Arizona. It wasn't actually paradise, by the way. It was desert, and everything had thorns or stingers, it seemed. Yet I loved it there.
We lived in a block house that Dad was building. He had finished half of it and we lived in that half while he finished the other half. I was a normal kid, more or less. I had a baby doll, but I wasn't content to play with plastic imitations. I wished, hoped, and prayed that my baby doll would turn into a real baby. I figured that if I took care of it well enough….
Of course, that didn't happen and I was finally convinced it wasn't going to. At that point, I grew up a little and became more realistic. I no longer prayed that my baby doll would become a real baby. I was smart enough to know that the only way I might get a real baby was if someone left one on our doorstep and I got to keep it. Now that was being realistic. So I wished, hoped, and prayed someone would leave a baby on our doorstep and I'd get to keep it.
Once again my plans were thwarted. While being stubborn isn't an indication, tenacity is certainly something desirable as a caregiver - and patience. I patiently waited - until one day I learned about the birds and the bees. Aha! I didn't have to wait until someone brought me a baby. I could have one of my own!
Of course, I realized that if I came home pregnant at 14, my sweet little mommy would kill me dead, and that didn't fit into my plans.
Mom and Dad, thinking to provide us with a financial learning experience, bought some calves. We each had a calf to care for. We fed them milk in bottles, and eventually taught them to drink from a pail. When one got sick, I eagerly took over the nursing. A neighbor gave me instructions on how to give a shot by slapping the animal first and then jabbing the needle into them between the startled reaction from the numbing slap and their instinct to run. I was pretty good at it, so I was the unofficial veterinarian in the family. I enjoyed it so much that I decided that I would go to veterinarian school when I graduated. I imagined myself taking care of exotic animals at a zoo or traveling to Africa and taking care of zebras and giraffes - maybe even monkeys. Did I already mention that I loved animals? I loved baby animals, but I still hadn't abandoned my dream of having a baby of my own.
Patience and virtue guided me into my adult years, until I could find the perfect daddy for my baby. Somewhere along the line I lost focus and married for love - but I digress.
Indication #2 of a caregiver personality is a strong maternal or paternal urge.
I discarded the nursing idea in favor of veterinary school. More years in college, no funding and poor math skills eventually sucked the life out of that idea, though.
Dad had an accident at work and wound up having his leg amputated below the knee. It was quite an ordeal for Mom and Dad, but other than initial tears, I don't remember how I reacted. I do remember that Dad helped us all through the horror of it by making his stump talk to us. He could flex the muscles in his leg so that the scar became a smile. Maybe that was where I learned to set my emotions aside so that I could take care of people. I'm sure his ability to turn a bad thing into something good must have helped as well.
We moved to El Monte, California (a suburb of LA) where Dad got a job working at an aircraft parts manufacturing plant owned by my mother's brother. Dad was learning a new occupation as a machinist, since he could no longer be a mechanic. Mom and Dad were a study in how to cope with adversity. We were all watching and learning.
We lived in California for two years and in that time my sister and I managed to find a stable within walking distance. I met and fell in love with a Clydesdale with one blind eye. That got me to thinking again about my desire to become a veterinarian.
Indication #3 of a caregiver personality is an interest in the medical profession - particularly nursing and veterinarians where the focus is on assisting more than on recognition or money.
I passed sweet 16 without ever being kissed and went on to whatever 18 is and never been dated. I still had a dream of having my own baby - assuming I could find a man. I was skinny and buck-toothed - nothing but a rack of bones and a hank of hair, as my uncle would have said. As if that wasn't enough, I was incredibly shy. I'd been asked out a few times, but I was certain that they were pulling my leg and as soon as I said yes, they would tell me they were only joking. So, I robbed them of the chance to belittle me. I declined their invitation. See how clever I was?
I graduated from High School on a Friday night and left for Tulsa on Saturday morning with my older sister. She had a job and an apartment there and offered to let me stay with her while I searched for a job. I had never been away from home for more than a few nights with relatives until that point and I was still so shy that I couldn't look anyone in the eye. To say I was naive would be an understatement. I had no skills, no experience and no clue. Nevertheless, I dressed each morning and went out looking for a job. I didn't have a car (didn't know how to drive one anyway) or money for a taxi, so I literally wore the heels of my shoes out walking on concrete sidewalks. It was an election year and jobs were scarce, but I went to employment offices every day to find out if anything had shown up. When a job as waitress was available part time for .75 cents an hour, I snapped it up and kept looking for a job when I was off work. I finally got a job as cashier at Walgreen's Drug store. Making change was a nightmare for me, but I finally figured it out. They didn't have machines back then that told you how much change to give the customer, and you had to balance your own register. Needless to say, I had to get over being shy.
I eventually got a good job and an apartment of my own. My sister married and moved to another state. I stayed in Tulsa for another five months or so before returning to Arkansas to be near my family.
Indication #4 of a caregiver personality is the ability to adapt. In order to adapt, a person must be tenacious and a self-starter. In my opinion, people who hesitate or wait for instructions when the environment or pace changes do not adapt well to caregiver responsibilities.
When I discovered that my boyfriend was a Type 1 diabetic, I must confess that I had no real concept of what that included. Far from being repelled by it, though, I was intrigued. I took my time getting to know Eddie, but after four months, I was more than smitten. Eddie still lived at home, but he paid his mother rent and helped her with the groceries. He was a meticulous man, always clean and neat in appearance. I had never seen anyone take care of their things the way he did. Everything he owned was lovingly preserved. Add to all that, he was a gentleman. I had hit the jackpot, and I was sliding down the slippery slope of love.
In my desire to take care of Eddie, the prospect of a baby dropped to priority #2. I married Eddie Rigsbee on April 24, 1970 at my parent's home in Vaughn, Arkansas. We both wanted children - lots of them, but we wanted to adapt to each other before we started a family, so we were married for six whole months before I got pregnant. Caregivers adapt fast.
When our son was born on July 22 of 1971, my focus changed. I finally had what it seemed I had waited my entire life for. I had a baby to take care of! My plan was to be a stay-at-home mom. My vision of parenthood had been from the perspective of a person who was not sleep-deprived, though, and a mother of a breast-feeding baby eventually comes face-to-face with malnutrition. I had never been fat, but I had picked up a little weight during pregnancy. I quickly lost that and my body went to work on any other fat cells lying around. My personal appearance came way down the list of priorities. At that point, priority #1 was taking care of our baby, and priority #2 was taking care of Eddie. Priority #3 was finances and priority #4 was keeping the house clean. Priority #1 was sapping most of my time and energy, which generally meant there often wasn't enough of either left for #4. It never occurred to me to ask for help.
I was totally clueless about the cost of raising a child. After all, how much could a baby eat? Fortunately, I used cloth diapers, but that created another problem. I was spending a lot of time doing laundry, and get this; it wasn't all diapers! My idea of washed diapers flapping on the line to dry was replaced with the reality of tiny baby outfits, rugs, blankets and all sorts of things I never dreamed would become urine soaked. In all those idyllic dreams, why had I never envisioned myself dunking a soiled diaper in the stool to remove the…? There were more rainy days than I ever envisioned, too, so I frequently ended up at the laundry down the street. It didn't take long to realize that it would be cheaper to buy a washer and dryer. In addition to the money savings, I would have the time to focus on other priorities - none of which were my health or appearance, BTW.
The purchase of a washer and dryer put a strain on our financial situation, and since Andy was 8 months old, I weaned him off the breast, put him on a bottle and went back to work.
Working away from home not only relieved our financial woes, but added more responsibilities. Of course, there was an escape from the demanding chores at home during the day, but can you believe they were actually still waiting for me at night when I came home from work? Add to that the new priority of my appearance. All those priorities continually shifted in line until I was often uncertain which one was #1 and which one was #5. Life was getting complicated, but I eventually adapted. (Caregivers are good at that, remember?)
In those years, I never thought of myself as a caregiver. I was a mother and a wife. In spite of all the complications, I wouldn't have swapped that part for anything. I had been in basic training all my life for that career. Even if it wasn't the perfect life I had envisioned, it still suited me.
Indication #5 of a caregiver personality is the compulsion to put the needs of others above your own.
As a parent and a wife, I often found myself in the "fix it" role. My son thought I could fix anything - and I usually did. At this point I would like to interject a personal observation. Often men are natural caregivers. We tend to think of women in that role, but nurturing and caregiving are actually two different things. Nurturing is the act of doing for, while care giving is the act of assisting. For instance, a man will fix the washing machine to make it possible for his wife to wash the clothes, hence assisting her. He's perfectly capable of doing the laundry, but the wife does it for him so he won't have to. That's nurturing.
I didn't fix toys for my son so that I could play with them. In addition, as he watched me repair the toy, I was not only teaching him how to repair each specific problem, but to examine their mechanisms and use his cognitive skills to determine and correct the problem. Later in life this honed skill became priceless on the job. "Give a man a fish.…"
Of course, I nurtured as well as assisting and instructing. While I did a lot of things for my family, and others, I found the most joy in teaching others to do things that made them self-reliant. I often made manuals at work that instructed people how to do my job in my absence. I never felt that being the only one to know my job was job security. I felt relieved that I could be absent and things would not fall apart at work. It was a kind of freedom for me.
As I perfected a process to home publish my books and sell them, I wanted others to be able to do the same. I never entertained the thought that I was developing competition. I was a shy person, but on this subject, I could talk for hours. I even taught a few BEEP (adult education classes) courses in the evenings after work in Bentonville, Arkansas.
Indication #6 of a caregiver personality is the desire and skill to assist and instruct, not merely nurture.
During my years of working at an industrial facility, I took advantage of the free first aid and CPR classes. I didn't want to stand around waiting for someone to help during a medical emergency. I wanted to be able to do something.
I founded "The Association for Diabetics," a not-for-profit organization to assist diabetics in learning to manage their diabetes. I even published a monthly newsletter, "Diabetic Data," which was not only instructional, but gave credit to the achievements of others.
When we moved to our farmstead in Cave Springs and I purchased goats for milk to treat my ulcers, I found that very little information was available about goats. I researched and began writing a monthly newsletter "Goat Udderings." I had people tell me they would wait for their copy and read it all in one sitting. I became known as "the goat lady."
When my son was old enough to be a cub scout, I discovered that there was no den mother. I didn't actually have time to be a den mother, as I was writing two newsletters a month, president of two clubs and volunteer librarian as well as working a full time job and managing a farmstead and family, but if no one volunteered, my son would not be able to join cub scouts. So, the "Little Red Hen" volunteered as Cub Scout leader for the year.
My volunteer history was so pronounced that one of the mothers of a Cub Scout told me; "When I heard they finally found a Cub Scout leader, my first thought was that it was you."
Indication #7 of a caregiver personality is an unusual volunteer history.
There are more indications and I could probably go on to, say #13. I'm not superstitious, but I though I might as well stop on the lucky #7 - just in case.
I believe that care giving, whether a paid career or an act of compassion, requires a specific personality. I hope this booklet will assist others in some way, whether it be in the decision to look into care giving as a career, or in selecting a caregiver.
My awareness of the roll as caregiver didn't come until after I had assisted my mother and father. I took a week of vacation to be with my mother during the last week of her life in July of 2006 as she lost her battle to breast cancer. Two weeks later I lost my job of 30 years, making me available to assist my father through a complicated knee replacement surgery, only a few months after losing his wife of nearly 60 years. When I discovered there were actually organizations that provided jobs doing this kind of work, I applied. It took several attempts, but I finally became an employee. I was holding down 2 jobs at the time, trying to make a living at half the pay I originally had. I often struggled to pay the bills, but I never felt I was underpaid. I was doing something rewarding. I was directly responsible for the well being of the person in my care. I had finally found the job I always wanted but never knew existed.
In June of 2010, my husband was paralyzed during a heart catheterization and I eventually took him home flat on his back, unable to sit up, roll over or take care of himself in any way. My training came in handy as I became a 24-7 unpaid caregiver in my own home. I have written a memoir about this experience "Another Mountain," and how my husband learned to walk again.
In February of 2011, as my husband was learning to walk, my father came to live with us. I had already been his part time caregiver for the last few years, but I then became his full time caregiver until his death in June of 2012 after a stroke.
Now in my 60's, I often look back on my life, wondering what inspired me to do specific things. Sometimes I see patterns. I hope this booklet inspires the reader to look at their life or the life of another caregiver and draw their own conclusion.
Linda Rigsbee, Author & Caregiver