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Simon: R-River... Hey, it's okay. It's okay. It's okay... It's okay. I'm here.
—Firefly: pilot episode
The Caretaker is a parent, spouse, sibling or child of a Cloudcuckoolander, Ill Girl, Ophelia, or Squishy Wizard who takes care of them. They put their lives on hold to make sure their loved one is well taken care of and hopefully happy, often when the rest of the family actively passes the ball or abandons their relative entirely.
Most of the time they're defined more by their ward than as a character themselves. Since most stories center on their ill relative, they're often relegated to being the overprotective guardian who actively discourages their loved one from any and all self realization, love, and risky activity in general. And that's if they're attentive; a negligent or resentful Caretaker will put the Dursleys' cruelty to shame. Only rarely is there middle ground for a "dynamic" caretaker who encourages their ward while not completely losing the ability to have a life of their own.
What happens next is even more of a downer. Once their loved one is cured/finds true love/dies, (One of these three always happens, there is no Status Quo Is God where The Littlest Cancer Patient and his ilk are involved) they end up... stuck. They have no life to go back to, as care for their loved one was priority number one, and get stuck on what to do next with their lives. This often leads would be suitors or the loved one calling them out that they need their sick loved one more than the loved one needs them.
When the Caretaker is allowed to take center stage, they often have to deal with metric tons of Angst, both from love, resentment, frustration, sheer sadness, wishing their loved one were dead and guilt at the last four. Honestly, they rarely get the kudos they deserve.
Unless, of course, they become what might be called an "activist" caretaker, in which case they not only care for their relative (a sort of living Dead Little Sister), they practically quest for a cure or better treatment on the part of society. Activists usually manage a happier ending, either partially or fully healing their ward, carving out a niche for them in society, rehabilitating them, or at least helping others do the above.
Needless to say, this is Truth in Television-- however it's not sad that this happens in real life; it's sad that there are sick people who have no family (willing or living) to take this role for them. (Now forward this trope to fifty people!)
- Mai-HiME's main character, Mai Tokiha, completely defines her life around taking care of her equally selfless Gender Flip'd Ill Girl younger brother, who eventually calls her out to find a reason to live besides him, or else he won't agree to treatment.
- In Eureka Seven, Will B. Baxter tends to his catatonic wife Martha's every need without complaint or despair. She's probably not aware of the situation, and hasn't been able to move, at all, in years. At least, until she gets up to see Will immediately before they both die.
- AIR: See Visual Novel section
- Shannon and Raquel are both caretaker and protector to their sister not really Pacifica in Scrapped Princess. Though Pacifica isn't actually ill, she is hunted by agents of the state and religious authorities.
- Cornelia, for Juliet in Romeo x Juliet.
- The backstory of Chrono Crusade reveals that Rosette almost took on this role for her little brother Joshua. After they became orphaned, Joshua developed holy powers which also caused him to be constantly sick. Rosette tells Chrono that she wants to become a doctor to cure him (giving up on her dream of being an explorer), but Joshua overhears her and attempts to defy the trope by agreeing to become a member of the Magdalan Order. However, Aion gets to him first and promises him the chance to gain enough power to control his illness...and kidnaps him, which sets off the events of the main storyline.
- The manga also has the minor character Beth, one of Rosette's old friends from the Order that later grows up to be her doctor.
- Lelouch of Code Geass takes on the The Empire, and eventually the entire world with almost no qualms about the sacrfices it would take specifically to build a world where his little sister can live peacefully, though he realizes that he has been using his sister as an excuse for his real motive: to make a better world.
- Played for comedy in K-On! with Yui and Ui. Ui seems to exist to fulfill Yui's every need, and has become hypercompetent because of it (which is thoroughly lampshaded by the rest of the cast), but has no idea what to do with herself when Yui isn't around. Late in the second season, their positions are briefly reversed, letting Yui learn An Aesop about appreciating what you have.
- Exaggerated in A Channel. Run is so ditzy that she pretty much would have gotten herself killed if not for Tooru, and Tooru is so protective of her that she threatens Run's male classmates with a baseball bat for simply talking to her.
- Superman is possibly an example of this trope, as odd as that may sound; as he is usually depicted as leaping into a situation based on his own assumption that he is doing what other people want, generally without bothering to actually stop and ask first. It's also arguably implied that being a Caretaker for humanity is Supes' only real reason to exist.
- Jenny, the sister to blind Virgil in At First Sight. She was incredibly overprotective, but got to justify her reactions as years of disappointment of quack doctors, as well as receiving a Promotion to Parent for her brother at a young age. Though she was called out on her faults, she got a chance to see them and mend her ways while her brother was temporarily cured of his blindness.
- Nell in the remake of The Haunting was the caretaker and daughter of an abusive bedridden mother. She had no life savings from taking care of her mother, and her sister was taking possession of their mother's house. Oh, and she dies at the end while taking down the evil ghost of the mansions owner. I believe the term "martyr" had people like her in mind.
- In the original film, and the booked it's based on, it's Eleanor that was the caretaker, even to living as a recluse - the haunting took advantage of her feeling of isolation and resentment.
- Lorenzo's Oil has a startling two parents work as Caretakers for Lorenzo, all while being Activists and independently researching a possible cure for his slow mental shutdown and helping dozens of others as the ending Montage advertises. Needless to say they were able to pull it off because they could rely on each other to care for Lorenzo, but they did become overprotective on his behalf.
- Benny from Benny & Joon. An important subplot throughout the film is his struggle with the realization that Joon, his mentally ill sister, can take care of herself better than he thinks and that he uses her reliance on him as an excuse to not live his own life. By the end of the film he understands this, and is able to enter a real romantic relationship for the first time, while Joon is allowed to get her own apartment.
- What's Eating Gilbert Grape is a perfect example of this.
- In Repo! The Genetic Opera, Nathan Wallace's wife Marni dies, leaving him to raise their newborn daughter, Shilo. He ends up keeping her locked in her bedroom for seventeen years to protect her from the outside world. And then it turns out he takes the "co-dependent" and "overprotective" parts of this trope Up to Eleven by administering a poison for those same 17 years to keep her bedridden and dependent, so she will never leave him. And this after he killed Marni trying to cure her! (Well, that's what he thought anyway.)
- Mrs. Medlock in The Secret Garden. She watched over the young lord's "ill" son Colin assiduously, and scolded Mary when she worsened his condition as being reckless. When it turns out it was years of overprotective care that left Colin unable to walk, which Mary cured, Medlock was reduced to a near friendless crying heap.
- Jo, towards Beth in the second half of Little Women. When poor Beth dies... Sniff.
- Will Parry in His Dark Materials starts out as a caretaker for his mother who suffers from mental illness and having to leave her for a time weighs heavily on him.
- In the Dragonlance books, Caramon Majere takes on this role for his Squishy Wizard brother, Raistlin, who greatly resents needing the help. Made particularly toe-curling by the fact that Raistlin is perfectly capable of murdering his caretaking brother, a fact which Caramon is well aware of - and yet, he stays. True to the trope, when Raistlin overcomes his sickness and achieves godlike power, Caramon is left as a drunken wreck without a direction in life...
- Until Tika comes along...
- Princess Marya in War and Peace acts as The Caretaker for her old father until his death, and then becomes the primary caretaker of her nephew, whose mother died in childbirth and whose father is off to war.
- The Old Man in Being There, with his maids, was this to the mentally challenged Chance the Gardener. The story proper begins when the Old Man dies and the now-middle-aged Chance is forced to venture out into the world for the first time, as the Old Man forbade him to leave their townhouse, with the threat of institutionalization if he did. What's particularly sad about this is the possibility that Chance is his (unknowing) son. In the movie version, the black maid Louise is a kindly caretaker and was likely closer to Chance than the Old Man... but she resents his later success as "Chauncey Gardiner" because she knows he's an idiot; as she sees it, he gained power solely because he's white.
- In Ivanhoe Rebecca the beautiful Jewish maiden cares for the Knight Ivanhoe when he is wounded.
- Many of Jodi Picoult's novels have this, though usually the caretaker is somewhat narcissistic. The caretaker is always a mother taking care of her child, who has a chronic, usually life-threatening illness. They often will ignore anyone else and focus solely on the child. Sara in My Sister's Keeper cares about her daughter Kate to the point of having a child specifically to donate blood and tissue to Kate and ignoring the other child. Charlotte in Handle with Care actually sues her best friend so she can get money to take care of the child.
- Jeeves and Wooster: In-universe, a lot of people think that Jeeves is this to Bertie. It's not far from the truth.
- George to Lennie in Of Mice and Men, with a bit of Cloudcuckoolander's Minder thrown in for good measure. This results in a serious Tear Jerker when George has to Shoot the Dog.
- Simon Tam from Firefly frequently takes on this role when it comes to his sister River. He is genuinely caring toward her and constantly strives to find out what was done to her at the hands of the Alliance so he can find a way to "cure" her, putting him squarely in the Activist role. Not to mention that he gave up a rich, comfortable life and a very promising medical career for a dangerous life on the run to do the above mentioned.
- Actually Simon is one of the few Caretakers this troper remembers seeing on TV and they manage to make him an extremely decent person. He suppresses any irrational blame for River and is never too smothering, though very affectionate (a necessary quality: arguably River needed a big brother even more then she needed a doctor). He is very protective and those who might harm her find that he is also a Papa Wolf when necessary. And to top it all off, he manages to have characteristics beyond caretaker ones- the show and The Movie make him a Deadpan Snarker with a somewhat bumbling approach to love. He does acknowledge that he's been ignoring what he wanted for himself by the end, though.
- And River inverts it in The Movie, by saving him and the entire crew by willingly locking herself in a room with an army of Reavers.
- Arguably that would be more like Mama Bear, then like The Caretaker despite the fact that the "my turn" thing is made to make it sort of a dramatic reversal.
- On the opposite side of the coin, there is the highly dysfunctional relationship of Lucille Bluth and her son Buster on Arrested Development. She switches back and forth from coddling to abusive based apparently on what will cause her son the most psychological damage. It's funnier than you'd think.
- There's a literal "the caretaker" in Star Trek: Voyager. He's taking care of the Okampa after accidentally frying their planet to a barely inhabitable mess.
- Arguably, Saffron Monsoon in Absolutely Fabulous could fit this trope. She is the most sane and mature character in the show, constantly being the Voice of Sanity to her mother (who is a middle-aged woman with a teenager's behavior and a toddler's emotions).
- Later episodes upset the balance by having her do things like spying on a "normal" family by hiding in their cupboard.
- This trope was the premise of the sitcom Mother And Son, with the son both caretaker and UnFavourite of a senile mother.
- On Buffy, Willow briefly became this after Tara was driven insane by Glory.
- Played for laughs several times on Seinfeld, where Elaine's boyfriends have a tendency to wind up horribly injured, suffering a heart attack, or going through heroin withdrawal just as she's about to dump them.
- Dogged Nice Guy Dan spends a couple decades being this for his wife Diana in Next to Normal, bordering on Heroic BSOD himself.
- In Keely And Du, a pregnant woman is kidnapped by a radical anti-abortion group that kidnaps her and tries to force her to have her baby. While there are male characters, the play mostly focuses on the Closer to Earth relationship between the contentious kidnapped mother and the the sweet, elderly nurse taking care of her.
- Lisa Garland, the nurse who who took care of Alessa in Silent Hill 1. In exchange for her care, she was granted a degree of protection from the horrors of the Dark World of Silent Hill, which she couldn't leave because Kaufman had killed her, trapping her there. Fan theories speculate Alessa cared for Lisa, and was using her to manipulate Harry into ceasing his search for Cheryl. In the end, she reverts to a blood covered monster when Harry rejects her and she realizes what she is. She does get a comeuppance by killing Kaufman in the Good + ending, though.
- In the movie, she was just an ordinary nurse who curiously looked at Alessa while agonizing after being near burned to death. Alessa responded by "blasting" her eyes and upper face with third degree burns that remain on her permanently even in the Dark World. Alessa does seem to regret it though... the evil inside her admits Lisa wasn't guilty of anything, and while she doesn't (can't?) heal her, she keeps her nearby instead of having Pyramid Head kill her.
- Axel fulfills this role toward Roxas in Kingdom Hearts 358 Days Over 2 after he is assigned to mentor the younger Nobody who recently joined Organization XIII. After Roxas befriends Xion and starts hanging out with her, Axel also becomes her caretaker as well. Axel eventually turns into a Poisonous Friend when obsessed with keeping Roxas and Xion as his friends, he lies to them, does questionable stuff behind their backs, and if they try to leave the Organization of their own free will, he attempts to bring them back by force. Following Xion's death, Axel is the only member of the Organization to miss Roxas when the latter defects. And in Kingdom Hearts II, Axel's dying wish was to see Roxas again.
- One of Akiha's endings in Tsukihime has Shiki playing this role toward Akiha. Definitely a tragic version, as she's been reduced to a more or less mindless, catatonic, blood sucking monster, and the already anemic Shiki insists on providing that blood himself, due to a sense of responsibility for her condition as well as love for her.
- The end of the A route in Blaze Union shows Nessiah supporting Gulcasa in a combination of this role and Living Emotional Crutch, as it falls to him (the only one who knows enough about Brongaa's blood and its effects) to make sure Gulcasa regularly kills something to sate his natural bloodlust (no matter how much Gulcasa himself does not want to) and nurse him back to health should he fall ill from overusing or underusing his powers with his body still unstable. He also takes Siskier's place as Gulcasa's confidante and adviser, as well as becoming his love interest. In a variation on the trope, Nessiah shows no sign of minding having to do this for three years; after all, when he's strung out after using Brongaa's power, Gulcasa is awfully easy to manipulate, so Nessiah has plenty to gain from being devoted.
- The Bishojo game Kana: Little Sister practically revolves around this trope, with the main character of the story (Takamichi aka Taka) being the Littlest Cancer Patient's big brother. He manages to escape the curse of being a Satellite Character, for better for worse, becoming darker and more complex (And less sympathetic... and sane) as the story goes on. How he ends up depends on your choices through the game, from publishing a book about Kana and using the funds to train as a doctor, saving Kana and then having her leave him when she realizes he's become co-dependent, to transforming into a despairing schizophrenic mess. ;-;
- In AIR, Haruko takes care of the weak and cursed Misuzu, and her feelings conflict between protecting her from herself and loving her.
- Syphile played this to Ariel in Drowtales. Granted, it was more of a Promotion to Parent than anything else, but Syphile knew Ariel was the product of a Drow-Spider mating, and saw Ariel as a literal monster to be looked after rather than a daughter or even sister. Combined with lingering resentment over being rejected by her mother, she took it out on Ariel with brutal "combat training" and impossible tasks as part of her studies.
- In Dept Heaven Apocrypha, it fell to Milanor to slowly and painstakingly nurse Nessiah back to health after the latter's mind finally shattered. By now Nessiah has mostly snapped out of the catatonic state he was originally in, but is still fairly dependent on Milanor as of chapter 10. They're lovers, and Milanor felt kind of responsible for Nessiah's state, so Nessiah's helplessness wasn't quite as awkward as it could have been, but...
- Much later, when Nessiah finally gets better, he points out rather bluntly that all of this has nearly destroyed his and Milanor's relationship and that they need to start over if they want to actually stay together.
- The video "Take Care" is a bitter-sweet 8-minute documentary about a normal woman struggling to care for her daughter and ailing grandfather while trying to improve her own situation. It's heartbreaking and beautiful.
- General 'Uncle' Iroh from Avatar: The Last Airbender voluntarily follows his nephew Zuko in exile, and cares for him as a son. Unfortunately, he only gets yelled at, insulted, abandoned, betrayed and imprisoned in return. It's not that Zuko doesn't care about his uncle, because he does; he's just way too obsessed with proving himself to his Evil Overlord father, Fire Lord Ozai, to have eye for the more important things in life.
- After 51 of 61 episodes, the message finally gets through, and he tells daddy (along with his Heel Face Turn) that he will from now on consider Iroh his father. All say "aww".
- And after 59 of 61 episodes, we finally get to see his tearful apology, and that Iroh doesn't hold a single bit of grudge on him. Which is not surprising at all when you consider that Iroh was still trying to help Zuko while in jail because of him.
- Iroh's affection for Zuko might the result of Iroh's own son getting killed. But this might be a small part of it, and it may be even irrelevant towards the end.
- We also see a toxic variant with the lengths Lao Bei Fong will go to keep his "blind, delicate, and helpless" little girl Toph safe from harm.
- After 51 of 61 episodes, the message finally gets through, and he tells daddy (along with his Heel Face Turn) that he will from now on consider Iroh his father. All say "aww".
- C.S. Lewis married a woman he knew was going to die of cancer in a few years to keep her company and look after her children when she was gone. Knowing beforehand the grief he would have to suffer. A great Heroic Sacrifice. However like the other examples of this trope there is a darker side to it. Does anyone really want a marriage based on pity?
- Well, I'm not sure if this is the right thing to say, but at least she knew that someone would be taking care of her children after she was gone.
- Several of the Righteous Gentiles from World War II obtained that status, not by great and exciting deeds but by taking in Jews and providing the necessities that were difficult or impossible for them to obtain. A long, terrible, and boring job done at tremendous peril.
- According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "more than 50 million people provide care for a chronically ill, disabled or aged family member or friend during any given year" in the United States. The Other Wiki has more information on caregiving. If the U.S. figures are indicative of the post-industrial world as a whole, about 17 out of every 100 people are this trope for a relative or friend. Meaning, if there are 1,000 active tropers present on this site (a conservative estimate), 170 of us could potentially be The Caretaker in real life.