Caregivers are not the same as caretakers.
You may wonder the difference between “caregiver” and “caretaker.” In some respects, they’re the same person but viewed from very different perspectives. The person who has lost their sight wants a caregiver. The individual helping the person who has lost their sight sometimes sees themselves as caretakers.
This is an important theme and is instructive when you consider how to interact with someone who is blind or visually-impaired. The goal is to make the person feel empowered. It might be best understood by explaining how to offer assistance to someone who is blind or visually-impaired when they are attempting to cross a street, navigate a tight space, or something similar. The temptation is to gently grab the person’s elbow, arm or shoulder. It’s a comfortable move and one we tend to do naturally when walking with a child. The problem is the person we’re helping probably isn’t a child. When you grab their arm, even if gently, you will likely cause one of three reactions, none positive:
- You give the impression that you see them as helpless (rather than sightless). Something similar happens when people speak more loudly to someone who is visually-impaired. Have you ever heard someone exclaim, “I’m blind, not deaf”?
- You may startle or anger them, as they’ll perceive that you’re pushing or rushing them.
- You may also frighten them and even cause them to stumble or fall. When people first lose their sight, the world can be a very scary place.
Ironically, you are not even guiding them in a way that is most comfortable or safe for them.
What’s the right approach? It’s actually very simple…you just ask if they’d like any assistance with whatever task they’re performing. If that task happens to involve walking, then you can also offer an arm for them to hold, which allows you to guide while allowing them to feel in control.
You might do everything correctly and still get a negative reaction, maybe even a viscerally negative reaction. You have to keep in mind that people who are visually-impaired can still have bad days. You may think, “Maybe someone else just approached them the wrong way.” Have you ever heard the expression, “killing me with kindness”? The person, you may believe, wants to be left alone (even if help might be useful). At this point, you can just politely say, “I’m sorry” and move on. If you feel the person is in a potential dangerous situation, then you can remain nearby and possibly alert the person to an impending hazard.
My last thought for this section is focused on the caretaker/giver. Helping a friend or family member recover from loss of sight is challenging, yet you don’t want to complain as the person you’re helping has far more challenge. This issue arises in any caregiving setting. You can help best if you maintain your own energy and positive attitude. Remember to set aside time for yourself – it’s not just ok; it’s essential to being the best possible caregiver. If you’re very lucky, perhaps you’ll have a resource such as Nancy’s House – caregiver respite in your area.