Essaying the Situation
Sunday, June 25, 2006
Why I Hate the Word "Respite"
First, a definition:
Webster's New World College Edition Dictionary of the American Language © 1968
res·pite (res´pit), n [ME & OFr. respit; L. respectus; see RESPECT],  1. a delay or postponement, especially of something disagreeable; specifically, in law, postponement of the carrying out of a death sentence; reprieve.  2. an interval of temporary relief or rest, as from pain, work, duty, etc.; lull  v.t. [RESPITED (-id), RESPITING],  1. to give a respite to.  2. to delay or postpone the carrying out (of a punishment, etc.).
    With that, you'd think I need go no further, right? Reason to hate the word "respite" seems to be laid out.
    The first time I heard this word in connection with caregiving was a few days previous to 3/17/01, uttered by MPS, whose husband, it should be noted, is an organ transplant social worker who has more than a nodding acquaintance with caregivers to the infirm. Thus, I shouldn't have been surprised at hearing the word in this context, but I was. I'd been so busy giving care that I hadn't had time to become familiar with caregiver-speak: I hadn't yet read any of The Literature; I was more than two years away from attending a Caregiver Conference; most of what I was reading was medical stuff, after having been abruptly ushered into the world of caregiving for An Ancient One whose health was quickly declining into a state at which it would later plateau, but I wasn't yet used to medical advocation.
    Although I was the only one in the room when MPS spoke THE WORD, I wasn't sure she meant it for my ears. Respite? I remember thinking. Jeez, that makes it sound like I'm digging ditches on a chain gang! Uncanny, considering that I hadn't bothered to look up a definition of the word until today, thus I'd only had cultural context within which to interpret it. I denied that I needed "respite" at that time, but I was grateful that related people were keeping an eye on me, in case I should founder. I mean, if I'm doing something from which I will, at some time, feel the need for respite, chances are I will founder, right?
    The problem with the word "respite" isn't just what it implies about what caregivers do, it's what it implies about what the "respite worker" is going to have to do: Take up the cross and the punishment until the caregiver "has the strength to carry on" or, more likely, when the respiter has to get back to his or her life, one in need of breaks, true: Dates, babysitting, time off, vacation, but, you know, not respite. A normal life of caregiving, for spouse, for children, for family, isn't punishing. We all agree with this, and act as though we do.
    Everyone seems to know, though, and agree that caregiving for The Ancient and Infirm is so onerous that one needs occasional "respite". And, I mean, you know, yes, "she obviously needs respite", but, tell me, who's crazy enough to "take up the cross and follow me"? No one except someone dedicated (as in dedicating one's life to a spiritual ideal) or paid to the task. "It takes a special kind of person..."
    It is interesting to ponder that when prisoners are granted respite from their duties, when someone sentenced to death is granted respite, no one "fills in". The chain gang is just down one hand; the executioner is just down one murder. When a caregiver receives respite, though, the "respiter" voluntarily agrees, according to our cultural wisdom, to take on the "punishment" the caregiver has been experiencing.
    Why, I have to ask, is caregiving for the Ancient and Infirm considered a punishment that must be relieved, rather than a/n a/vocation that deserves a vacation? Why do we think, all of us, somewhere under our better beliefs and intentions, that taking over for a caregiver to An Ancient or Infirm One is akin to entering the last, worst Hell of the Caregiver's Inferno?
    It has to be because no one that anyone knows has ever delighted in caregiving to the Ancient and Infirm; thus, we have agreed that one can't delight in this type of caregiving. Not only this, but, woe be to the unlucky soul who "respites" the caregiver. It is understood that this will be one of the heaviest of tasks of providing relief. "Don't do it if you don't think you'll enjoy it."
    I've learned from A History of Old Age that, as far back as we can trace, taking care of the old has never been considered a delightful task in Western Civilization. The luckiest of the old have always been those who can take care of themselves or somehow set themselves up, usually accidentally, throughout their life to accord the respect of being taken care of in advanced age (which usually requires both money and prestige); there have been many of these. There have also been more than a few independent Ancients among the less well-to-do, the commoners. Although taking care of one's elders within the family was often considered the right thing to do, it was rarely legislated. Our "memories" of past Southwestern European family units consisting of several interlocked, inter-caring generations is largely a myth. It seems that as soon as any population in any Western European country began to prosper, the family unit split into nuclear subsets to allow everyone a little more privacy. Poverty was the primary distinguishing feature of the inter-generational family.
    Caring for our old is something we're going to have to decide to learn anew. We don't have any honorable tradition; just honorable intentions. Entering into the life of An Ancient One in the same way we enter into the lives of our infants and toddlers, allowing our Ancient Ones' lives to enter into ours in the same way we seduce infants and toddlers into the family, are skills and situations for which we need to find intrinsic value and favor, which we can only do if we're all exposed to them, all around them, at some point in our lives.
    Whether or not we have within our social purview cultures that have lessons to teach us about embracing our old, we need to approach the activity as though this is New Stuff, because it is, to many of us. It would go a long way toward breaking through to the beauty of caring for our Ancient Ones if we could break through the hardwired cultural knowledge that caregiving is a "punishment" that requires "respite".
    I'm closing with another definition, one to which one is referred when reading the definition for "respite":
Webster's New World College Edition Dictionary of the American Language © 1968
re·spect (ri-spekt´), ...n [L. respectus;, a looking at, respect, regard pp. used as n.]  1. a feeling of deference, honor, or esteem...  2. a state of being held in honor or esteem...  3. consideration, courteous regard...
    Consider that, in Latin, the words "respect" and "respite" have the same root; as if to imply that adequate "respite" should involve esteem, honor, conscious attention, certainly deference, perhaps even celebration, of not only the caregiver who's being relieved but the Ancient One for whom we are caring.
    This is new territory for us rugged individualists: To learn to enjoy protectively, yet lightly, embracing our Ancient as they journey out of this world, as much as we enjoy the cradling, then the releasing into the world of our infants and toddlers. It is as though the majority of us are descended from ahistorical cultures who abandoned their old. It's going to be a long, messy road, I'm afraid, but I think the first thing we can do is this: Every time we use the word "respite" to describe what we should be providing for our caregivers, even if we are forced, by time constraints, to use this word, we should think about what we are saying in its name and whether we want our perception of elder care to be so onerous as to be in need of desperate respite. Breaks? Yes. Regular breaks? Absolutely. But respite? Only the condemned need respite. If we perceive our caregivers as condemned, perhaps we need to consider that, by refusing to help them as often and generously as possible, by stepping away from our caregivers, washing our hands of even knowing our Ancients for whom our caregivers care, then thanking our caregivers for relieving the rest of us of what we consider to be impossible tasks, we are the jury condemning them. In which case, we should do better than simply offering respite. We should reconvene the jury.
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