Caregiver vs. Caretaker

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A reader wonders about the difference in meaning between caretaker and caregiver:

It seems to me that they should have opposite meanings. Is there a difference in usage?

Although “to give” and “to take” describe opposite actions, caretakers and caregivers both mean “people who provide care and attention.”

Caretaker has been in the language since the mid-1800s. Its earliest meaning was “one who takes care of a thing, place, or person; one put in charge of anything.” Here are two early examples of the usage given in the OED:

The souter’s wife..was servant to Gilbert Brown..and..acted as nurse and care-taker to Agnes his daughter. (1858)

The caretaker of the house met them, hat in hand. (1859)

Caregiver is a newcomer that entered American English in the 1960s and migrated to British English in the 1970s. It means “a person, typically either a professional or close relative, who looks after a disabled or elderly person.” Caregiver can also refer to a parent, foster-parent, or social services professional who provides care for an infant or child.

According to estimates from the National Alliance for Caregiving, during the past year, 65.7 million Americans (or 29 % of the U.S. adult population involving 31 percent of all U.S. households) served as family caregivers for an ill or disabled relative.

In modern usage, caretaker is sometimes used with the same sense as caregiver, but it’s more commonly used with these two main meanings:

1. noun: a person who looks after property:

Alan John, caretaker at Buckholme Towers School in Lower Parkstone for 17 years, died in June this year at Forest Holme Hospice.

St. Louis looks to overhaul Soldiers Memorial, find new caretaker

2. adjective (or attributive noun): designating a government, administration, etc., in office temporarily:

CAS Coovadia, the MD of the Banking Association of South Africa, has been appointed as the caretaker CEO of Business Unity South Africa (Busa) while the business organisation looks for a new CEO.

Bulgarian president names new caretaker government

A group of people being looked after by a caregiver is called a “care group.” An individual being looked after by a caregiver may be called anything from “Mr. Jones” to “Momma.”

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15 thoughts on “Caregiver vs. Caretaker”

  1. I don’t think “caregiver” is used very much in Britain now. The more usual tern is “carer” for someone looking after a sick or elderly person either in their own home or in a residential nursing home. I know someone who is registered as a “carer” after her father had a couple of heart attacks.
    Caretaker is used mainly for someone who looks after a buidling such as a school or village hall.

  2. Seems like “caregiver” probably came in to vogue to eliminate the possibility of objectifying people, which might happen by putting them in the same class as houses, grounds, governments and the other non-human things “caretakers” are often responsible for.
    By reserving “caregiver” for human care you get the double connotative benefit of not associating them with the inanimate stuff, and by invoking “give” rather than the more selfish “take.”

  3. I would add “care receiver” as the name for an individual being looked after. I am in a ministry program for those experiencing pain after a crisis such as a loss. The people who receive our care are kept anonymous. We use the terms caregiver and care receiver to differentiate the relationship, so in meetings we say, “My care receiver”.

  4. When I was little, my father was a caretaker on an estate. I had a little social difficulty because some of my classmates mistook “caretaker” for “undertaker.”

  5. I agree that the distinction between caretaker and caregiver is probably a good one. It’s just that caregiver is such an awful word. It sounds like contrived, bureaucratic, government-speak, which it pretty much is (see “healthcare”). Maybe we could reassign caretaker and expand the definition of sexton? Or just stick to perfectly good terms like groundskeeper, curator, conservator, gardener.

  6. The word “undertaker” connects us to an intertesting “false cognate” i in German. There is the compound word “Unternehmer”, where “unter” = under, and “nehmer” = “taker” — but an Unternehmer is NOT and “undertaker” in the common English sense.

    An “Unternehmer” is a “big businessman” who undertakes huge projects – such as Donald Trump, Lee Iacocca, and the heads of companies like Daimler-Benz, Siemens, Volkswagen, Lufthansa, BMW, MBB, General Electric, Microsoft, IBM, and the big pharmaceutical companies. A woman in a similar position is an “Unternehmerin”, where “in” is the female suffix for any kind of a profession or job in German. [e.g. “Lehrer” is a male teacher and “Lehrerin” is a female teacher. “Meine Mutter war gute Lehrerin” = “My mother was a good teacher.”]

    So, the difference is between “Unternehmer” and “undertaker” is that an Unternehmer undertakes big projects or businesses, but an undertaker takes dead bodies underground.

  7. Venqax, there is no other good word for the caretaker of a lighthouse, of a school or college during a period when it is closed, of a ski resort during the summertime and the fall.
    These caretaker have a wide variety of duties that are not easily classified otherwise, including taking care of plants, keeping burglars and vandals away (or at least calling in the police), taking care of plants of all kinds (lawns, shrubbery, trees, etc.) on the grounds, watching out for leaky pipes and broken electrical stuff, keeping the varmints away, calling in the exterminators, etc.

  8. The keepers of a lighthouses are called lighthouse keepers. Always have been. In the US they were employed by the United States Lighthouse Keeper Service. The keeper of a university– especically– and often a resort or other type institution is often called a custodian. Groundskeepers typically tend to the outside needs of the place. The grounds.

  9. I identify myself as a caregiver. For seven years I cared for (took care of) my mentally and physically il father-in-law in our home. That care giving meant taking hin to his doctor appointments, cooking special foods for him, feeding him when he could no longer feed himself, changing his adult diapers, sitting at his bedside all night when he was restless and confused. I was his advocate and kept him safe when hospital staff didn’t read his chart fully and made mistakes that could have cost him his life. I was at his side when died. All of that, along with the love I had for him, was giving care.

  10. VENQAX: You are splitting hairs again:
    The keepers of a lighthouses are called lighthouse keepers. Always have been. In the US they were employed by the United States Lighthouse Keeper Service. The keeper of a university– especically– and often a resort or other type institution is often called a custodian. Groundskeepers typically tend to the outside needs of the place. The grounds.

    Nobody, such as Maeve or me, said ANYTHING about selecting a specific word for each microscopic case. This was an article about general-purpose words such as “caretaker” and “caregiver”.
    Once again, all you want to do is to go OFF THE SUBJECT and be offensive to other people. I am VERY offended.
    I don’t know what your problem is. Do you have insects in your brain?

    So, I will return the favor to you. The initialism “U.S.” contains TWO periods, and it always shall, and people who omit the periods are just being ignorant boors. You are not only insulting me, but insulting my entire country.

  11. Caretaker = the one responsible for the care of someone or something. The caretaker has TAKEN the RESPONSIBILITY of care.

    Caregiver = one who gives SOME sort of care to someone or something.

    The caretaker is the one RESPONSIBLE for someone or something.

    The caregiver is just some worker, who is NOT responsible for anything.

    The caretaker is MORE likely to be sued.

  12. While I like notion that a caretaker takes responsibility for someone or something, I find the following better suited to distinguish healthy versus unhealthy caring for another. Having been involved with addicts in the past, I learned how to avoid enabling while also giving love and devotion. Being in the situation, one is often blindsided by all the daily things that go undone. The caretaker makes it their responsiblity — while the cargiver does what they can.

    Caretaker — enabling the addict or alcoholic to continue using and avoiding responsibility by going to great lengths to cover up the addiction and make things appear as if the person is able to live responsibly — while wasting precious time and energy keeping up appearances instead of living their own life. Unhealthy.

    Caregiving – helping, supporting, giving love, time, energy, effort to help someone who can’t help themselves. Can be joyful and can be devastating. The receiver is getting help with basic activities of daily living that they can not do for themselves and would if they could.

  13. It has been my understanding that no one is responsible “For” anything, because a verb doesn’t follow a preposition. Therefore I am responding to this argument responsibly, but I am not responsible for it.

  14. Nancy Lamb,
    An interesting perspective.

    I don’t understand what you mean by “a verb doesn’t follow a preposition.”
    “Responsible” is an adjective.
    “Responsibility” is a noun.
    “Responsibly” is an adverb.

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