‘A unique concept for senior living in beautiful surroundings’. This is how the Old Deanery residential care home describes itself on its website. It’s a bit rich, coming from the Essex home where ‘care’ workers were filmed abusing residents. Undercover footage of their heartless actions featured prominently in theBBC Panorama programme on residential care in the UK, broadcast on Wednesday 30 April 2014.
Cue national scandal – and not for the first time. After successive revelations over thepast few years, the horror, the horror of residential care has become a dog bites man story. That is, the latest revelation that care workers are slapping elderly residents and calling them bitches, is hardly more surprising than a dog bite on the postman’s bum.I am not saying – not for a nanosecond – that ‘elder abuse’ is on the same level as thepostie’s posterior. I am saying that since we already know it goes on, also that thegoings-on are more than isolated incidents, discovery of a further, furtive episode is no grounds for sounding like Cilla Black on Surprise Surprise! Moreover, feigning surprise is as unhelpful as the official response – the Department of Health announcing plans to test workers on how much they care, as if those capable of violence towards the elderly are not also capable of acting, playing the role expected of them, for the duration of the test. Some may find my comments callous. I disagree. It seems to me that for those not immediately involved – whose relatives have not been abused in residential care homes, who have no direct role in the immediate prevention of abusive behaviour, thefirst line in a truly humane response is NOT to be caught up in the rush to say how disgusted we are. Instead we should be looking around for an explanation. It is not for us to give vent to our emotions; moreover, the whole Shock! Horror! routine, on the part of those who have no business performing it, can only obstruct the level of circumspection which must be arrived at in order to address the wider problem. So what is it about current circumstances which prompts some people working in care homes to treat other people as if they are non-people – like beasts to be prodded and pushed around? Stock responses to this searching question include: low-paid workers are not paid enough (their low pay is effectively an insult which some of them pass on to the people in their care); and, bearing down on care workers, time pressures prevent adequate care and create tensions which cannot be taken care of, so that some care workers end up taking it out on the people they are meant to be caring for. There is something to be said for both these observations. On the other hand, care work never has been highly paid; and throughout history it has often been performed in straitened circumstances – seemingly without recourse to the level of abusive behaviour which, in its frequency and intensity, appears to be a distinctly recent phenomenon. Hence, if such behaviour is indeed increasing and increasingly virulent, it can only be accounted for by reference to something – something peculiar, something different – in the way we live now. Could it be that some people are now treating other people as non-people because, according to current definitions, those other people hardly qualify as people, and the task of looking after them is not something that any proper person should be seen doing? From this perspective, people, i.e. ‘care workers’, who are paid to look after persons who do not qualify as people, i.e. elderly care home residents, are also being called upon to destroy or at least negate their own personhood, as currently defined, throughout their entire time at work. In which case, every hour spent doing care work, is also an hour of being an un-person ‘caring’ for non-persons; with predictable results. But surely only a Nazi nutcase would take the demented position that those suffering from dementia do not count as human beings? Unfortunately, something akin to this position is not such a rarity. While ‘master race’ eugenics have been consigned to the nut-house of history, the cultural equivalent of eugenics now occupies centre stage.The dominant culture of the day is narcissistic – we have to keep looking at ourselves; and heavily aestheticised – to participate, you have to be good-looking enough to be looked at. Moreover, if you fail on either of these counts, under present conditions there is little or no justification for your existence. However sketchy, this outline at least draws on how our sense of who we are and what we should be doing, has changed considerably in recent years. We have only recently arrived at a version of the self which is defined by the selfie. According to thecurrent definition of selfhood, I am only myself as and when I am doing something which I would like to see photographed and uploaded as a selfie; on all other occasions I am something less than myself, not a real person under the terms of the current definition. There is clearly no place for washing old men and cleaning old ladies according to the selfie definition of selfhood; although there may be a place for me (and my narcissistic sense of selfhood) next to the old codgers when they are photographed trying to blow out the candles, preferably a hundred of them, on their birthday cakes. Seen in this light, a care worker slapping an elderly woman is the barbaric realisation of today’s culture of narcissism. The terrible irony is that being inhuman to the elderly conforms to the emerging definition of what it means to be human: manifesto ergo sum – I show myself, I upload myself; therefore I am. It is fitting, then, that the latest residential care scandal involves a care home in Braintree, Essex, better known as the home base of the reality tv show, The Only Way Is Essex (TOWIE). In TOWIE, a cast of photogenic people play themselves in a series of semi-scripted scenes. Of course everyone knows that ‘reality tv’ is largely artificial. But no more so than our real lives are supposed to be, according to the current definition of what it means to be human. On a day-to-day basis, if you do not accomplish anything which is up-loadable, which is comparable and compatible with the kind of actions and facial expressions on show in shows such as TOWIE, then, according to today’s definition, you are not living the life of a human being; you have failed to meet the minimum requirements of being human; you are not so very much more than a piece of meat. Of course this is a grossly fetishised interpretation of our common humanity; there is no room for the terrible mess of contradictions that we really are, which being human really is. In particular, it cannot encompass the continuous contradiction of growing old and feeble, of slipping inexorably away from what we were in our prime, yet not going gently into that good night (pace Dylan Thomas, whose 100 candles would have been lit this October). The fetish deals only in icons and their antithesis: the iconic version of self – the selfie, versus that which prevents me from living in the iconic world of selfies, e.g. my job cleaning up after the elderly. Ironically, this is the iconography which the Old Deanery website is still trying to ingratiate itself with (‘a unique concept for senior living in beautiful surroundings’). In a further irony, even the Shock! Horror! response to elder abuse accords with the flattening out of our contradictory humanity into a set of up-loadable icons. Here the horrified response becomes the inverted image of the horrifying events which prompted it; in their current appearance, both of them are equally one-dimensional. More disclaimers: I am not claiming that TOWIE made them do it; rather that TOWIE reflects a culture disposed towards a particularly narrow, fetishised definition ofhumanity. I am not absolving the guilty parties of individual responsibility for their actions. Again, I am trying to account for the disposition to behave in this way, which is not the same thing as explaining why some people give in to this disposition while most others succeed in resisting it.
For myself, as someone trying to live by a spirit of inquiry rather than the culture of narcissism, I see it as my responsibility to arrive at a more humane account of the current, historically specific iteration of man’s inhumanity to man; hence today’s extended version of the News of the World.