Self-care, an interview with Sophie Éthier

23 May 2024

Self-care, an interview with Sophie Éthier

Sophie Éthier is a full professor and researcher at Université Laval’s School of Social Work and Criminology. Since 2018, Sophie’s work has focused on the concept of treating caregivers fairly. Today, we talk to her about caring for oneself, or self-care.

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How would you define self-care?

In our research, we define self-care as an approach in which the person is considered according to their overall situation. By taking into account their experience and expertise, we work with them to help counter mistreatment.

Is it a new term?

The term “bientraitance” (self-care) was first used in France in the 1990s, in the context of childcare. In the 2000s, the word was used in connection with the elderly and disabled. The French term “Bientraitance” appeared in the Larousse dictionary in 2013. In Quebec, we started using it in 2017. There is no exact equivalent in English.

The Office québécois de la langue française’s definition of the French term “bientraitance” refers to vulnerability…

Self-care is often confused with benevolence. A focus on self-care necessarily involves being benevolent, with something extra. It involves action; it’s thoughtful and voluntary.

Are caregivers vulnerable? In social work, vulnerability refers more to the process and situation of vulnerability. In our research, we considered that caregivers suffer abuse in the performance of their role; this is what we wanted to shed light on.

Studies show that caregiving can lead to exhaustion, isolation and abuse, and can affect health and even life expectancy. I believe that caregiving places people in a vulnerable situation. Promoting proper care can counter this phenomenon.

What caregiving challenges does self-care address?

I think the main challenge for caregivers is recognition and self-recognition. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of this role. I think we need to capitalize on this!

In my opinion, talking about caregivers from the angle of self-care takes things to a whole new level. Now, there’s a caveat: talking about self-care shouldn’t obscure the fact that abuse exists, and that there’s currently a shortage of support resources for caregivers.

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Let’s focus on self-care. Why is it important?

When caregivers don’t recognize themselves as such, they are unaware of the extent of the work they do, and the energy this role demands of them. They suffer the consequences, sometimes without even understanding the cause of their exhaustion.

The definition of caregiver insists on the free, informed and revocable nature of the role. But in practice, it’s not always chosen. When you give birth to a child with multiple disabilities, you become the caregiver. It’s not always clear-cut either; people don’t always know what caregiving entails, how long it will last and under what conditions.

That’s where education comes in. I think that promoting self-care means explaining to caregivers how to respect their limits and needs. You don’t have a choice now, so can you set your limits? Can other family members also become involved? Is it possible to respect your needs? Do you give yourself the right to make mistakes? Can you choose to ask for help?

What are the clues that tell us we’re practising “self-care”?

We show self-care when we realize that this role is not beyond our control. Obviously, this is subjective and varies from person to person. When I’m able to name positive aspects of my caregiving and feel that I’m performing my role under the right conditions, then I’m practising self-care. If not, it may be a role that’s currently beyond my capabilities. Am I proud of what I’ve achieved today? Or do I feel dissatisfied at the idea that I should have done more? Do I feel guilty about taking time for myself?

Self-care allows you to continue to be a caregiver in better physical and mental condition. And taking even 10 to 15 minutes for yourself every day benefits everyone.

Any advice for readers on their journey towards self-care?

To have sufficient self-esteem and self-love. Loving yourself means being aware that you have the right to perform your role as caregiver in a spirit of self-care. We deserve it!

A big thanks to Sophie Éthier for this informative and thoughtful conversation.

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