‘Tis February, the month of candy and flowers and reflection on the love relationships in our lives. We celebrate all the various forms that love takes – not just romantic love, but also the love among family, the love among friends, and the love for pets. It’s also a time to consider the love we have as eldercare professionals for the people we care for.
Wait – did I just use the L-word?
As an eldercare professional, no matter what your specific discipline may be, you work closely with seniors. You want to see them smile, and you cherish those special moments when you can bring someone joy or ease their pain. It really and truly matters to you how they feel. You care what happens to them. You get upset when they get upset, and you mourn their loss when they leave your world.
What word describes this feeling that we get?
Can it be the “L-Word?”
Is it okay to say that we love our clients? Is it acceptable to say, “I love you” to a person we care for in a professional role?
This is a difficult question to answer, and I think there are two sides to this issue.
On the one hand, in the mental health world, we talk about “boundaries,” how we must create and maintain a professional relationship with the people we serve in a professional role. This is meant to protect our clients and ourselves.
On the other hand, we are CAREgivers. We have deep empathy for the people we serve, and we really do CARE about our clients. Not-caring isn’t really an option.
Let’s look at both sides of this issue.
Boundaries Protect Clients and Professionals
I’m sure we can all agree that it would be inappropriate to have a romantic relationship with one of our seniors. Romantic love just isn’t an option here. We also cannot expect a reciprocal love from our clients. It is not their job to make us happy or to serve our needs for praise or comfort. Just by being the recipient of care, our clients are in a vulnerable position, and it is vital that we professionals do not take advantage of that relationship. So, we need to have boundaries to protect our clients from potential harm – whether that harm is intentional or not.
Professionals need boundaries for many reasons, too, not the least of which is the fact that, eventually, our clients all leave us, either by dying or by moving to another level of care. These are losses to be sure, but pile up loss after loss, and you’ll be on the road to burnout if you don’t have some way to be separate from your clients.
But here is the rub – how to be separate yet empathic, how to care without caring to much.
How Can We Care Without Caring?
We can’t. We can’t have a wall up between us and our clients, a professional distance wide enough to keep our emotions safe. Not only would we be ineffective as caregivers, but we would hate our jobs. Seriously – “detachment” is one of the three prongs of burnout, as defined by occupational health researchers.
So, detachment is no more an option than romantic love when it comes to our relationships with the people we serve as eldercare professionals.
Rather than detaching ourselves and trying not to care too much, I think we should care deeply. We should love them enough that when it’s time for them to go, our hearts do break. That’s okay, though – our hearts heal, and they’re big enough that we have more to give.
I Use The L-Word Now – And Here’s Why
Sure, it’s not always appropriate to say the L-Word to a client, even if that is the best word to describe how we feel about the people we serve. But maybe sometimes it is. I used to have an unspoken rule about using that word – never, under any circumstances, would I say, “I love you” to a client. That changed for me, though.
It took a sweet woman with dementia, so confused that she couldn’t carry on a conversation, with tears in her eyes, holding my hand after I sang a song she knew, urgently repeating, “I love you, honey. I love you. I love you.” Over and over she said this. I responded the only way I could – I said, “I love you, too.”