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The language of caregiving

by Isabel Fawcett

For speakers, listeners, writers and readers, commonplace words are loaded with meaning, sometimes evoking strong feelings including negative emotions. Explore the vocabulary and language nuances of those who provide direct care to individuals who are chronically ill.

The word "caregiver" is defined in the English language as a person who provides direct care, as for children or those who are chronically ill. In American and Canadian cultures, caregiver is the popular noun for those who provide such care. By comparison in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia, the most commonly used word for the same direct care profile is "carer." (You say tomato, I say [to-mah-to,] yet both profiles provide direct assistive care to individuals who are chronically ill.)

A Primer to Caregiving Language

Just to keep things lively, there is also eldercare provider and individuals who prefer to be identified as spousal caregivers. Unpaid relatives of those being cared for generally identify anyone paid to provide direct care to others as professional caregivers, caregiving assistants, or, direct care providers. There is a complex vocabulary hierarchy in caregiving roles and responsibilities.

One emerging social caregiving trend is a paid caregiving arrangement between aging parent(s) and adult child(ren.) I am not aware of any existing commonplace terminology which specifically addresses this trend. I suspect the caregiving community eventually may find a way to distinguish a paid caregiver relative versus an unpaid relative. Perhaps business partner carer, or, paid relative caregiver might be commonplace descriptions for such profiles one day? Should such social distinctions even matter given the overarching English language definition of the word caregiver?

Care remains the foundation of caregiving and carer. Carers are as carers do. In the end, it may be just splitting hairs when our society creates so many language and categorical distinctions between and among those who provide direct care to chronically ill individuals.

"Other" Caregiving Words Make the Rounds

As a caregiver and former caregiver support group manager, I have learned that some individuals are neither familiar nor comfortable with the traditional vocabulary of caring, carers and/or caregivers. On occasion, the word caretaker is used as a substitute, or, interchangeably with the word caregiver. However, to some direct care providers with Old World, United Kingdom and comparable international influences, hearing or seeing the word caretaker automatically denotes a person who cares for buildings and grounds in absence of the property owner(s.)

Webster's Encyclopedic Dictionary (2006) offers multiple definitions for the word caretaker, including "one that gives physical or emotional care and support (served as caretaker to the younger children.)" According to Webster's definition, caregiver and caretaker may be linguistically interchangeable, if only in the dictionary though not in everyday speech. Language necessarily remains fluid and continues to be strongly influenced by social trends. Be sure to stay tuned to"care speak" clues and trends.

Direct Care Provider(s) to Whom?

If the vocabulary of carers is not simple, neither are adjectives or nouns used to describe direct care recipients.

Depending on the relationship the person being cared for is known as a:

  • Customer--to a home health aide
  • Patient--to a paid allied health professional
  • Resident--who resides in a nursing home setting
  • Loved one--to many caregivers
  • Charge--said in a support group in reference to "loved ones"

I cringe at any mention or thought of my own loved one as my "charge." A prevailing definition of the word "charge" denotes a heavy burden, load or weight, a requirement or an imposed task. No one held a gun to my head to become a caregiver. Caregiving reminds me of the words to the song, "He's not heavy, he's my brother." On the other hand, there are some caregivers who candidly express feelings of hatred toward individuals in their care. In such instances, perhaps the word "charge" may not be far-fetched.

Carers speak a unique language and come from all walks of life. It helps to understand individual care circumstances before using words one may not fully understand.