Not All Attention is Created Equal
Much of what we do as caregivers can be summed up in two words: giving attention. Most people dismiss the value of attention because this act of care seemingly requires no special skill set. So, the thinking goes, if anybody can give attention to a loved one in need, then it clearly isn’t very unique. But here’s the catch—so few people are capable of giving the kind of attention loved ones need most because not all attention is created equal.
The following list distinguishes between different types of attention, beginning with the least essential form of attention and culminating with the most vital type of attention that distinguishes caregivers from most others. And just as important, the last type of attention described will remind you why the care you give is so important to your loved one.
Body Attention— Although this type of attention is essential among medical experts, it is the least important (yet most heralded) care we can give to loved ones. Body attention focuses attention on people’s bodies and body parts—turning care into an endless search for accurate, clear, and more (always more) information about origins, symptoms, and causes of diseases or illness. This type of attention is often expressed as “research,” as those who give this type of attention demonstrate their care by privately doing endless hours of Internet research away from the very person they care for.
People who give bodily attention become intimately familiar with body parts or symptoms but, in the process, they can’t help but (unintentionally) neglect the very person they love who has the very symptoms or disease they have devoted most of their time, energy, and focus.
In other words, you can only type generic body parts and names of diseases and symptoms into the Google search box to find out more, not your loved one’s name.
Convenient Attention—This form of attention is given when it is convenient for the person giving attention, not the patient/loved one. This kind of attention is usually given by a long-time friend or neighbor and is typically expressed with statements such as, “I’m going to come by your house and read to you three times a week…” or “I’m going to call you everyday to see how you are doing.” Because this care is based on convenience, the promises of attention often only create false expectations that are rarely met.
Sadly, this type of attention revolves around work and social or mood calendars, not the need calendar of the person in need.
People who give convenient attention find it hard to overcome the needs of the moment, often uttering phrases to themselves such as, “I’m not really up or visiting today,” or “I can always go next week. I’m just not feeling it right now.”
Conditional Attention—This type of attention is characterized by a carrots and stick approach to caregiving. In other words, well-intentioned, tough love means attention is given with strings attached—making sure your loved one “gets better.”
When attention is focused exclusively on a loved one’s potential to get better, attention is all about improvement and almost never about the value of the person staring back at you.
So, conditional attention dangles the promise of more attention just beyond the outstretched arms of a loved one because it is used to prompt, inspire, and cajole a loved one to do more, to expect more, and become better/healthier. Although conditional attention may have noble aspirations, too often, this kind of attention only reminds a loved one that their worth is always about tomorrow—when they have “overcome” a disease or medical condition—not about who they are today.
As caregivers, we know that all attention is not created equal. Caregivers like you and me—we give a different type of attention than most others.
Our care is so different because our attention is given to the whole person. It goes beyond body parts because we know our loved ones are more than their bodies.
Our attention occurs everyday, when our loved one needs it most, not when it is convenient for us. And our care has little, if anything, to do with what will happen to our loved one if they get better because our attention is focused on what is happening now.
So when someone minimizes the job you are doing as a caregiver, remind them that not all attention is created equal. Even though attention seemingly requires no particular set of skills that can be neatly bullet-pointed in a resume, it’s amazing how rare a gift it is to give and receive attention without qualifiers.