January is Alzheimer’s awareness month, and to encourage discussion on caregiving and health education, the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada is hosting workshops for family caregivers. The workshops will discuss developing emotional strategies. Depending on the severity of their deterioration of cognitive and physical abilities, patients with Alzheimer’s may sometimes require professional caregivers.
To learn more about the concept of caregiving—what it entails, how it has been constructed, and how it has evolved over time—The Medium spoke to Dr. Christina Rousseau, an instructor at the sociology department at UTM. Dr. Rousseau, whose research focuses on the intersection of gender, work, and emotional labour, joined the sociology department this winter and currently teaches SOC352, Gender and Care.
The Medium (TM): You study gender and work and emotional labour. So, were you always drawn to caregiving because it’s a mix of all three, or did it recently draw your attention?
Christina Rousseau (CR): The work of care is something that’s kind of been a central part of the research that I’ve done. The work I do does centre on emotional labour, which is a huge aspect of care work. Looking at care work is interesting because it looks at both the more invisible, emotional aspects of work, but also at more tangible or visible things that we can see, that go into caring. I like care work because it allows you to look at all aspects of that kind of work.
TM: You teach a course named Gender and Care. What is that about? How’s that going?
CR: We just started the term and so far, we’ve been looking at the gender divisions of labour between the public sphere [and private sphere]—so work outside of the home, how that relates to work inside of the home, and how care work has been shaped and organized in the home according to gender relations. What the course will be exploring is what does the dynamic look like when this work exists outside of the home as a profession. [It will also be] looking [at] the way people experience care work according to racial hierarchies, immigration status, disability, etcetera. [We’re] trying to look at [care work from] a broad perspective within Canada, but also [at] how care work in Canada often relies on workers from, you know, other parts of the globe.
What is the global relationship of care that we have? How would you explain the concept of caregiving to someone who is completely alien to the notion?
You can kind of classify it as, you know, what does it mean to care? Care, I think, has two parts to it.
On the one hand, there is an emotional investment in someone else’s well-being, and paired with that is a desire to take action of some kind that will benefit that person.
It’s more than just to distinguish care from empathy. Empathy tells us, “Oh, I really feel for you!” But it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll do anything about it. Whereas care is both that feeling of being emotionally invested while also having a desire to take action; to improve that person’s well-being.
TM: What about the notion of professional caregiving? I come from a South Asian background and it’s a foreign concept there that you would hire somebody to take care of a loved one. How would you explain that?
CR: In North American western society, the work of care has largely, historically been done privately in the home. Now, because women are the ones that continue to be primarily responsible for caregiving, it often creates barriers for women who want to pursue certain types of work [and enter] the workforce. Sometimes, care work gets contracted out or people get hired, to enable [the women] to go out and pursue other avenues of work. A large part of that is because women are still the ones primarily responsible for doing [care] work, so they often get unfairly disadvantaged.
TM: How has caretaking as a professional career changed over time?
CR: There are different kinds of care work. Nursing, as professional care in North America, began in the 1870s as kind of an official, structured body. Even within that, there [were] shifts and changes in terms of what’s considered a higher ranked or more professional type of care. Registered nurses, for example, versus someone who’s seen as a lower ranked [care worker], like a personal care attendant, personal support workers, whose work is seen as not needing as many qualifications. What’s happened is care work has become increasingly professionalized and categorized in different ways.
TM: What’s something surprising about the caretaking field that not many people would know?
CR: I think a lot of it is that there is so much emotional management that goes into doing care work. In terms of yourself as a worker, you’re managing your emotions. You’re also, a lot of the time, trying to get a certain emotional response. Not necessarily an emotional response, but using emotions or trying to regulate someone else’s feelings.
If you’re a nurse, for example, and you’re working with a difficult patient, you need to manage your emotions, not show your frustration, in order to get them to do what you need them to do—in order for you to do your job. That’s a big part of care work that people don’t really realize. There’s a lot of emotional management, controlling and masking your own feelings, and also trying to create a certain reaction in someone else to be able to do your job.
TM: Given all the emotional labour that’s part of caregiving, as well as physical labour, would you say that it’s a precarious work field? Or are there some positions that are more precarious than others?
CR: There are definitely some care positions that are more precarious than others. There is kind of a long history with the fact that this work has traditionally been done in the home by women. It’s not seen as valuable or its not valued as much as other types of work. When we see the distinctions between more professional types of care work versus less professional types of care work, we get the idea that, “Oh, anybody could do that job.” Those are the types of work [positions] that are more precarious—ones that are seen as more disposable, seen as not being as skilled.
But people don’t really realize all the work that goes into it. I think some unions that represent care workers right now, particularly personal support workers, are trying to illustrate some of what makes their work precarious, some of the difficulties that are part of that work.
According to Alzheimer’s Society of Canada, 25,000 Canadians are currently diagnosed with dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is deteriorative and affects a person’s cognitive and functional abilities. emotions and moods, behaviour, and physical abilities, though not necessarily in that order. Alzheimer’s progresses by destroying brain cells, which causes thinking ability and memory to deteriorate. Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal part of aging.
TM: With that in mind, do dementia or Alzheimer’s patients require more emotional labour for care workers?
I think any time that you are working with elderly patients, you are working with someone close to the end of their life. Something that we don’t necessarily see enough is the emotional attachment that care providers have to their patients, or to the people that they’re working with. Particularly working with someone with Alzheimer’s can be an emotionally frustrating experience, to watch someone go through that. That’s kind of an invisible part of the work that we don’t really notice or that we might not be aware of.
This interview has been edited for clarity.