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OnWords: Care


The word “care” has taken on many different meanings, meanings that seem to contradict themselves.

At one level, we use the term to indicate helping and high regard: the caring person gives constant nurturing and support, hovering over a bedside and using soothing tones.

But we also admire a “devil may care” attitude. In this case, the caring person is seen as overly sensitive and far too serious, but the person who doesn’t care is seen as having no worries.

We have also made a suffix of “care,” Watergate style, which we apply equally to things we do like, like Medicare, and things we say we don’t like, such as Obamacare.

And even the term “health care” casts a huge shadow, encompassing both giant multinational corporations and the gentle touch of a family doctor.

These contradictions and multiple uses make “care” hard to pin down: are we weak for receiving care but noble for offering it? Can a plan of care drawn up by an insurance company really exist on the same continuum as a loved one who knows to bring you hot tea when you’re fighting a nasty cold?

And then there’s this: the words caretaker and caregiver consistently mean the same thing. The words describe a positive role.

But that last seeming contradiction may be the key to all the other ones. Both “caretaker” and “caregiver” are active terms. In America, we like people who take care of the stuff that’s their responsibility. And we admire people who give care of themselves.  

Because they are both active, the care plan developed by a soulless insurance company and the care of a family doctor can be seen as good, but people who are acted upon by too much concern may need a friendly devil to dump that care off on.

Oddly enough, research backs this up: those who take an active role in caring for their health and wellbeing, and those who care for others, tend to live longer, happier lives.

For KMUW, I’m Lael Ewy