To All Those
Who Have
Given Us Care

by Dawn Chan

The individual who raised me has been forgetting everything over time, bit by bit. She remembers she is a mother. But her own name comes and goes. The faces in old photo albums are unrecognizable. The location she parked her car, each day, escapes reach. When the pandemic lockdowns hit, I brought her groceries, which required ferrying brown paper bags of food into her one-bedroom apartment, which, in turn, required facing the truth: Mounds of empty yogurt containers. Tea-bag wrappers. An avalanche of plastic bags and cardboard boxes by the entrance. A mountain of old receipts and fury, confusion, and despair. A neighbor shouting at us, from the hallway, that adult protection services would soon be involved, if our inaction continued.

The agency sent along your resume: a document full of words and skills that are needed to keep humans alive. Words I had never seen before: Nebulizer. Hoyer lift. Transfer board. ADL assessment. The agency sent a document that described you holding your previous client’s hand in the evening. The two of you played Uno. Your favorite kind of music: the songs sung by the congregation you belonged to, back in Mombasa, where your family still lives. “Thank you for giving me a chance,” you said to us, guardedly.

The agency sent along your resume: You speak Russian. You bake an excellent cod, from frozen packages. Your family is in Volgodonsk. You did a trial day, with us, and achieved the unthinkable: you extorted something from her that I couldn’t: a shower, for the first time in months. You blew-dry her hair and promised her you would never leave.

The internet sent your resume, and the many sets of five stars you’d received. Your family lives in Sheboygan, but you’re in the Bronx with your pit-bull terrier mix.

The internet sent your resume, and we spoke. You’d worked in an insurance call center before. You have a brother in Luzon who just retired. He bought a house surrounded by trees, up in the mountains where it’s cooler.  You want to retire with him, with your family, but you’re here—with us, with her: with your new client. She isn’t the worst you’ve seen, you tell me.

I don’t know how you kept your cool, as her eyes turned dark. She grabbed the phone and started threatening to call the police and yell, “I’ve been kidnapped!” You called me to let me know that things were just about falling apart.

You quit the job; because she was too much. So I went and filled in as the temporary aide for
a day and spent most of that day hiding, defeated, in an upstairs room, because it was so
very hard.

We haven’t met yet, you and I, but we will soon. The agency sends your details. Another resume, another photo, another unsure, unreadable smile.

Another resume—a resume that announces you can do patient transfers by yourself —no second aide needed. Really? You can lift an entire other human? By yourself? You look five-foot-two. How is this possible? Your previous client had just passed away in hospice, so you decide to do a trial day here, with us. At this house, which we’ve furnished with mismatched lamps and TV subscription services and things that I hope will keep you happy: here is where you first manage to calm her down. She whispers to me in the driveway, I really like this person.

For a job that requires changing bedpans and lifting entire adult bodies—cooking meals and being a constant friend to someone slowly losing their identity,—the daily rate—your going rate—seems far, far too low. You earn more than me, as you absolutely should: Every day, I
sit at a desk and type, wondering when I should break for another espresso.  Every day, you outsmart someone full of rage at their decline. You wheedle and flatter and yell at someone until they bathe themselves, and then, donning nitrile gloves, you clean up human excrement, and work alone for hours on end. Your compensation ought to be a million per year. At the
very least.

The awful truth: I can’t pay you a million dollars. The awful truth: you do this job anyway.

Because of all this—because you deserve so much more compensation than I can give— I’m trying so hard to remember everything. Like your birthday, which is January 17. October 3. December 20. June 19. March 4. You like chocolate. You don’t like chocolate. You’re allergic to chocolate. You collect cat figurines. Dolphins. You’re utilitarian—you wouldn’t mind Walmart gift cards. You like flowers. The internet tells me not to give you an even number of flowers: in Russia, that’s only for a funeral. In the driver’s seat, I pull a rose out of your birthday bouquet and toss it on the passenger seat. 

I’m trying to remember your daughter’s birthday. October 15. She’s a phlebotomist. Your grandson is six, and he likes Legos. Your mother’s house in Sheboygan: Are renovations complete? Did your granddaughter manage to get her orthodontia in Santo Domingo? Your sister has heart disease. I’m trying so hard to remember it all.

You talk to your houseplants, to keep them happy. You say, “Oh my, Oh, my,” so as not to take the Lord’s name in vain. Your son met a great girl, you tell me. And then, he went and cheated on her. His behavior left you so furious that the next time he came to visit you, you made him artichokes for dinner. To send a stern message to him. Because he is allergic to artichokes.

In recent decades, care has become an increasingly well-theorized, even buzzy topic. From economists to feminist theorists to sociologists: everyone has weighed in. And yet, as every research paper aptly notes in its concluding section, more research is needed. No one understands yet what is at stake for you. Least of all, me.

I came across a literature review by sociologist Paula England, a text that seems coolly taxonomic, almost soothing, in its summary of broader social factors that contribute to the ways you are not paid as much as you should be.

According to England: The “devaluation” framework looks at how sexism and cultural biases result in low pay for immigrants and women of color. The “public good” framework examines how, if care workers benefit communities more broadly, such distributed benefits are nearly impossible to translate into collective incentives that result in adequate pay. The “prisoner of love” model, according to England, suggests that the altruism of care workers itself leads
them to accept lower pay. The “commodification of emotion” framework uses a Marxist lens
to investigate how the paid labor of caregiving alienates workers from their empathetic tendencies. And the “love and money” framework ponders the possibility that caregivers
may work both because they genuinely care about others and because need to pay bills of
their own.

I do not know which of these frameworks might be factors in your employment, but I wish I could—with deep, bone-level knowledge—understand what keeps you going in this home we have thrown together quickly, full of mismatched lamps, for someone who will fall apart over this decade going into the next.

All I can do is try to remember the many stories, facts, and birthdays you have mentioned in our conversations, and hope that much care flows in your direction too.
(Facts have been altered to protect the privacy of all those providing and receiving care.)

England, Paula, “Emerging Theories of Care Work,” Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 31 (2005), pp. 381-399.

Dawn Chan is a writer and editor in New York.