Accepted Paper:

"Subjects" or "bare bodies"? On the relationship between nursing home staff and mentally impaired elderly people  


Haim Hazan (Tel Aviv University)
Liav Vana (Tel-Aviv University)

Paper short abstract:

Based on an ethnography conducted in a day care center for elderly people with dementia, the literature describing them as disengaged bare bodies, denied of subjectivity and humanity, is challenged. An alternative approach suggesting a spiraling process of re-engagement is propounded.

Paper long abstract:

We challenge the assumption that an entrance into a total instituion forfeits the body of subjectivity; self, social roles and rights; thus turning it into an object of bare life. Furthermore, we contest the vast literature describing elderly pepole with dementia as individuals subjected to a spiraling pejorative process gradually denying them of subjectivity and humanity; thus rendering them susceptible to "social death" management, as mere objects of treatment.

Our research is based on an ethnography we carried out among elderly people, attending a day care center, in moderate to advances stages of dementia.

Our findings suggest that on many occasions the nursing home staff infantilizes the elderly people and reproach them; continue their assignments without attending to their presence and wishes; abstaining from the elderly people, demonstrating that they are their superiors.

Nonetheless, they frequently jest with the elderly people; play with them and stay attuned to their rhythm, without displaying any form of impatience. Moreover, they encourage them to walk or rely on crutches, in order to prevent them from being marooned to a wheelchair. The staff challenges them and makes efforts to pay attention to the activies that the elderly people prefer to engage with. Finally, the staff compliments the elderly people and respects their preferences.

These complex relationships challenge Goffman's and Agamben's assumptions and form a unique oppportunity to debate on the different components of the "self", especially when it is symbolically becoming extinct; while the leftovers of the "subject" remain, though supposedly invisible and inactive.

Panel P126
Politics of life and death and the practice of caring