Problems in Caregiving Relationships: Neglect of the Other

Last time I wrote about how caregivers, including Chaplains, can neglect themselves in caregiving relationships. This happens when Chaplains, clergy and others who are providing care to another don’t recognize or reject their own power and authority, and also when caregivers don’t recognize their own needs and therefore neglect themselves.

Problems also occur when neglect occurs on the other end of the caregiving relationship. The most obvious and probably common way this happens is when the one receiving care minimizes or rejects their own agency in the relationship. In other words, the other may see himself as helpless and unable to do anything for themselves or others. He may not recognize his own capabilities or the responsibilities that he has toward himself or others. This can come across in many ways, such as self-neglect, resistance to self care and neediness (asking for help to do things that he can do independently).

Caregivers and chaplains react to this helplessness in a number of ways. He or she may become a co-dependent in the relationship, diving in to fulfill their own needs to be affirmed by rescuing or saving the person in their need. This can be a very fine line to cross for both the caregiver and the other, as it is often hard to see where actual needs start and perceived needs end. Personal boundaries get bulldozed by good intentions on both sides in this situation. The one in need becomes someone who is perpetually in need, while the caregiver becomes one who is perpetually rescuing them. The difficulty lies in that for both sides of the caring equation their identity has become tied up in their role: the other needs to be needy in order to feel care, attention and control, while the caregiver needs to be needed in order to fulfill their own sense of purpose and “calling” as well as to maintain control.

You’ll see that in both cases control is an issue and motivator. Each person in a co-dependent relationship, whether explicitly or implicitly, is in a struggle for control; control over the environment, control over themselves, or control over the other. That is why challenging a co-dependent relationship is so difficult. Whenever boundaries are put in place, one party or even both may react against them to try and maintain control and harmony, even when the “harmony” is chaotic and sick. The caregiver may feel that they are failing or a bad person for not helping. The person being cared for may feel lost, fearful, and even more helpless than before.

When a Chaplain is a caregiver in this type of relationship, it becomes very important to have a third party to bounce ideas and reflections off of, whether it is a supervisor, another Chaplain or clergy member, or a trained social worker. Chaplains get their emotional heartstrings pulled as much as anyone, and can easily be drawn in to be a self-justified savior to someone in need. Trust me – there are few things worse than a Chaplain with a messiah complex! However a better strategy for the Chaplain or any caregiver is to recognize the power and authority that the person in need has, even when that need is great.

People in need of care often struggle with a loss of meaning. I often hear from folks that they struggle with needing care because they had always seen themselves as one providing care, not needing it. To be in need means to be weak, and to be weak means that they are less than who they once were. Depression and anxiety can easily develop as the person slips from “I can’t do what I used to do” to “I can’t do anything”. The Chaplain can the best assistance at this point not by simply providing sympathy, which reinforces the helplessness that is experienced, but to find opportunities to rebuild meaning and purpose.

I often lead bible studies at nursing homes and this is something I try and reinforce with the residents on a regular basis. The resident who can walk can push a resident in a wheelchair. The resident in a wheelchair may be able to pick up something that was dropped by another resident. The resident who is too weak to do anything can pass along a smile to residents and staff. I frequently tell the story of a patient I had who had been bed bound for several years in a nursing home. She was blind and nearly deaf, her arms and legs were contracted and unable to move. Yet she saw her purpose in being able to pray for any and all she came in contact with. Staff would relay prayer requests for her from residents, and often their own as well. As I would pray for her, she would continue to pray for me and to bless me in the work I was doing. I’ve seen other places where the residents are able to help out by cutting coupons for veterans’ families, caring for facility pets, or be doing simple jobs like folding towels and bibs.

Be strengthening the person in need by maintaining their identity as someone who is not merely a receiver of care and love but a giver of it as well, we help to stop the codependent cycle and strengthen the self not only of the one in need, but of our own selves as well.


Next: Neglect of God

More on the Therapeutic Triad

See also:

Neglect of the Chaplain





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