A Past Reflection on Being an IHSS Caregiver

This is sort of my overview. It’s kind of long, so bear with me as we step inside my head inside the system.

Light filtered in lazily, here and there. Endless craft organizing bins, stacked to the ceiling, walled in the space, looming unsteadily over an inner circle of chairs, none of which sat empty. Collectibles, stuffed animals, clothes, and knick-knacky crap covered every one to some degree, so that the largest room in the entire house sat unusable, an abandoned repository of bits and bobs that would never amount to anything, each representing a project, a dream, subsumed by grander, more urgent projects and dreams, a matryoshka of faded ideas now biding their time until the next good earthquake. Taunting the geological gods. Begging, maybe, for the chance to escape and in the chaos, make news, be something, see the light of day for the first time in decades.

And in the center of it all, me, gazing around in wide-eyed wonder.

Some clients, they lie. They rip you off. They break your heart. So why am I still here, in the midst of this dust? I’m here for who they were or almost were or wish they were. I’m here because they all matter, even if the whole world has forgotten. Every little inch of everything that towers over me tells a story. All those stories stack together into a life, broken down, memories stashed here and there, the once-was filling in the never-will-bes like grout between tiles. There’s no empty space. No room for mold and regret anymore. It’s almost perfectly full.

I want to write it all down, to shout to the world, “Hey – this was Bob or Bill or Sally or Linda – and this is what they did. These are the contributions they made, the roads they paved that you walk on each day, oblivious and ignorant. Where the hell would you be without them?”

They tell me their stories, and I listen, if only because no one else seems to. We go out and talk to people, and eventually, the other people and I drown out the voices of my clients. These clients only look back, so their talk is one-sided. They can’t keep up. No more hard drive space to spare. It’s all temp files and then those get cleared to make room for some more, and while we speed ahead, they’re stuck processing, sorting, staring ahead blankly, lost somewhere five minutes or five hours or fifty years ago.

The world moves so fast. I want to slow it down for them, smooth it out, make it make sense again, but even I can’t keep up. They’re slipping, slipping, always slipping. I grab onto greased pigs for a living, greased pigs floating downstream in a river. It’s a hopeless pursuit, any way you spin it.

When I can’t catch hold long enough, they get angry and frustrated. They hate me. They rail against me, kick me out, abuse me. Sometimes, they have someone to talk some sense into them. Someone better at catching hold of bucking hogs. Someone they trust. Mostly, though, they’re alone, clinging to the stacks around them. It’s about self-preservation, survival, or maybe just raging one last time at the whole, stupid world.

But in the eyes of the system, they’re all rational, independent people to the last. They sign the forms to this end, so it must be true. As far as the bureaucracy is concerned, this is all one big business, an endless sea of happy little employers and employees, self-governing, spinning our wheels in perfect harmony, going nowhere while somewhere in an assembly hall, our collective fates are mulled over and tossed aside, year after year.

I don’t know where to start. I assume the workers who come before me did the best they could, too, regardless of what my clients say. I just think their tracks get quickly covered up by the still falling snow of crumbling lives. Everything always needs vacuuming. The dishes are never done. Sometimes on Tuesday it’s impossible to see back through to whatever I did Monday.

I leave my children unattended every evening. They’ve got oven access, food to burn, pets to neglect, rags to cut up leaving a confetti trail of threads across their carpets, drinks to spill, important items to lose track of, pills to mix up, glass to break. What else can I do but abandon them to their fate? Once a year, someone they barely know comes out and asks them a million questions. The interrogations can take hours. They watch nervously as this near-stranger scribbles things down on a clipboard. Then, a few weeks later, the verdict is in. Still good alone with however many hours assistance in the following areas. And that’s it for twelve more months unless something really catastrophic happens, in which case it is not the state’s fault, officially. In any case, the client’s eventual assisted living care is the federal government’s problem… usually. Probably.

Any company providing goods or services to those not deemed worthy is subject to an FBI raid, so theoretically, they’re panicky and hyper-observant. But only to a point. Thousands upon thousands of people live within this system. More join the fold each day. The social workers are beyond overwhelmed. They just want problems resolved fast. Who cares what slips through the cracks in the process?

We all try our best, but it’s exhausting from every angle. When it blows up in our faces, we just kind of shrug at each other. Sympathetic ears are lent. Forms and records are updated. And we move on without ever fixing anything, leaving the pieces for someone else to pick up. Someone who didn’t witness or hear anything about the prior disaster.

I go in blank. I am told many impassioned, biased things. I never see papers or records or objective accounts of those before me because those things don’t exist.

I’m bad at picking up on and correctly judging clues to the truths behind the tall tales of terrible care giving.  I have to give them the benefit of the doubt on most things if I’m ever going to be employed by anyone in the system, so generally, I throw up my hands and plow headfirst into the maelstrom, hoping for the best.

I’ve been used. Screamed at. Forgotten.

But I’ve been hugged, and smiled at, and adored. I’ve become the keeper of all confidences, lifeline of lifelines. I’ve been a friend when no one else was. I’ve been praised, doted over, loved.

I know more deeply the greatest truths of life and death than most people my age, little secrets of the dying and ancient, harsh realities hidden away from those going to work each day in offices, schools, labs, and cubicles. The doctors and hospital nurses, they get glimpses. They know the immediate things. They see final progressions in time lapse format. I see them four or five or seven hours a day, week after week after week, until I can’t see the little fragments of decline anymore as they break apart. I’m shocked out of my complacency when an old, simple task proves impossible, and everything comes rushing back into focus around me. How’d we get here? Could I have been doing more? Why can’t I ever hold back the tide?

I’m racing around, looking for answers. For hope. But it all falls away in this profession. The best just fade as I watch, helpless. The worst explode and fizzle and leave me reeling.  No big miracles. No reassuring epiphanies. Just a march toward some kind of ending, in fits and spurts, and me, marching alongside, ever so slowly, matching pace, eyes nervously set on the uneven ground.


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