Sunday, November 27, 2005

On emotional labor...

Our neighbor, M, died today. She was 87 years old. Except for her caregiver, L, a native of Fiji, she had no one else in the world. L came to live with her more than a year ago after a string of rejected caregivers sent by an agency. One of those caregivers is also from Fiji, whose husband occasionally came over to help with the housework. M didn’t want her husband’s help even if he didn’t ask for compensation. Another caregiver, a young white woman, just wasn’t polite enough. These caregivers came and went. M said that they were all uncouth, impolite, unreliable, lazy.

M was the last of her kin. She had no children from her marriage. She had two stepchildren that she didn’t get along with. When her husband lay dying at the hospital, her husband secretly called in a lawyer and decided to give the power of attorney to his son instead of his wife. He also made sure that part of his assets would go to his children in spite of his wife’s disapproval. Upon discovering this clandestine act of her husband, M refused to take him back home. She filed for divorce instead. She was 83 years old.

Her now-ex-husband recovered from his near-death condition and managed to live another year. He tried to move back in with his ex-wife but instead his wife filed an injuction against him. He couldn’t come near their property within 100 meters. He took up with another woman and a year later he died.

M lived a bitter and angry life. Who knows if this contributed to the mini-strokes she would have over the course of the next five years? Slowly she lost the use of her legs and then her arms and hands. While her mind remained sharp and feisty her speech was eventually reduced to screeches and screams.

By the time L came to care for her, she had slowed down a bit although it was not beyond her to call L “dumb” when L couldn’t figure out how to bake a turkey or when she couldn’t spell the items for the grocery list. Yet, L would come to call her Mama. She invited her Fijian community to be a friend to M and soon even her own children in Fiji told her: Just bring Mama to Fiji, we will take care of her here. M uneasily accepted this friendship and surrendered bit by bit to its unlikely source.

[Oh, did I forget to mention that as long as we’ve been neighbors, she and her ex-husband had always expressed prejudice against “those others”?]

L had the patience of a saint. Perhaps it was her Christian faith. She began to read the Bible to M and began to talk to her about life after death. L didn’t hesitate to ask what she would want for her funeral, what psalms she would want to be read. The next door neighbors who were also devout Christians thought the time was right to call in the pastor for the evangelical version of extreme unction. So once a week, the pastor paid M a visit. Was she merely a captive audience? Someone whose life was so bereft of friendships and kin that she welcomed this belated reconnection with other human beings?

On her final days, M was rushed to the hospital due an infection that had shut down her organs. The doctors moved her from the ICU to comfort care and started her morphine drops to ease her into the twilight zone. L wanted no part of this morphine regimen. She wanted to take M home and care for her until she breathed her last. She begged the doctors but she was only a caregiver whose opinion didn’t matter. She cried and never left M’s side until the final moment.

I asked L if M had made provisions for her to take a break – go home to Fiji for awhile and rest – after she’s gone. I had to be blunt. Did she make provision in her will to leave you something… anything? L didn’t know. The fact that M never mentioned anything to L about this make me suspect that she hasn’t.

What is the cost of emotional labor? At one point, L requested M to buy out her contract from the agency so she can have a larger take home pay. M wouldn’t hear of it; she was afraid that she would be left in a lurch, if for some reason, L didn’t work out. She didn’t have any reason to trust L. And yet L stayed. It was a job, yes. But it was also more than that.

Last I heard L already has three job offers. But she tells me she is tired and she needs to rest for a while. Maybe go home to Fiji. But it costs money to go back and maybe she’d rather make money while she still can.

What is the cost of emotional labor? Should the working contract for caregivers include a “time-out” after the emotional toll of caring for a dying person? How humane is the caregiving business in taking care of its caregivers? I am reaching for something here…a little hope maybe…that some things are still beyond commodification. And I am afraid to be mistaken.

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