Last week, three care workers from Hillcroft nursing home were jailed and a fourth given a community sentence for tormenting and abusing elderly residents with dementia. Their actions were described by the trial judge as “gratuitous sport at the expense of vulnerable victims”. This high profile case adds to a depressing list of abuse of frail elderly and vulnerable people amounting in many instances to criminal behaviour on the part of care workers.
This blog is a personal reflection on these events although I do have an academic interest in body work and the regulation of care. My first reaction when I read or see the coverage is to feel sick. I am taken back instantly to the emotions I experienced in relation to my own parents. They lived until their late 80s together in their council bungalow in a village until my mum’s physical health deteriorated significantly. Dad was not able to look after her adequately and I took over responsibility for them. Eventually they came to live with me and for two years or so I became immersed in the world of ‘care’ – high intensity emotional contexts, exhaustion and persistent low level frustration caused by every day events coupled with constant anxiety about their wellbeing. I hated to think of their vulnerabilities being exposed. I wanted everyone around them – care workers, nurses, my friends, neighbours and adult children to see them for what they were – simple ordinary people – nothing special – at the end of their lives. I wanted people to like them – to see through all the stuff that comes with frailty in old age – and to treat them well and with respect. I can’t bear to think about what has happened to people like my mum and dad, although neither had the added vulnerability of dementia in the situations described in these cases. I am of course not alone in this – the relatives and friends of those who experienced the abuse say the same: they are angry and feel guilty. I understand the guilt while recognising that it is inappropriate.
My second reaction focuses on the pictures of the workers, described as bullies, monsters, callous and hard hearted and a disgrace. I find it difficult to join in the ‘how could they?’ responses. I was constantly anxious about the demands that my mother in particular presented to those who cared for her. I worried all the time that they were unreasonable – I often found them unreasonable when I was doing the caring – while at the same resisting this way of thinking about her – why was I expecting her to be reasonable? What did that mean – complying with my idea of what she wanted or needed? I would mentally grit my teeth, draw on a joint history (not uncomplicated) and my love for her and find a way through although I would feel furious at times. I didn’t always stop myself saying and doing callous things or neglecting her. But how would those who only knew her in this last stage of her life, and through a work relationship, cope? What did I expect of them? What was reasonable?
I hoped to manage relationships between care workers and my parents and between the care workers themselves (we always had a minimum of 2 at any one time because of the complex needs of my mother) by throwing as many resources as possible at the situation – decent wages and generous conditions – plenty of substantial and paid breaks away from her during working hours, long holidays, constant attention to individual worker’s needs and pressures, flexible arrangements between the workers themselves and so on. I am no saint. I wanted the arrangements to work. I liked all the people involved. I could be ‘generous’ because my parents received substantial financial support through direct payments at that time because my dad had been a farmer worker and they had no assets. I could add to this from my professional salary. I lived in a very large house with a big garden providing ‘space’ for workers. It was still far from easy. Tensions between workers would emerge which had to be sorted out. But by having a mix of part time postgraduate students, full time directly employed workers and some agency workers coming in at peak times we managed somehow.
I look at the pictures of the ‘homes’ that always seem to accompany the reports of these institutional abuse cases and think about the financial and managerial regimes that underpin them. The reports provide glimpses of the position of the care workers – often from marginalised groups in society, under pressure, vulnerable, untrained, unsupported and under-resourced – and I can see how the abuse happens quite easily and I find it hard to join in the general condemnation while sharing the anger at what has happened.
It seems to me that we as a society abuse these workers and when they abuse others we send them to prison. We create a ‘moral panic’ about institutional care and put these body workers at its heart. Labour law seems totally unable to provide an adequate framework for protecting care workers and for managing these really difficult relationships. The structural problems associated with the commodification of caring particularly in a context of ‘austerity’ are being mis framed as the individual responsibility of marginalised workers within the law. These workers’ (often physically and emotionally exhausted) culturally identified bodies are made invisible for these purposes while increasingly made subject to surveillance by managers and regulators through other forms of regulation deemed necessary to prevent the abuse which results from the means through which such care is provided. The state punishes them for our collective lack of responsibility.
Ann Stewart, School of Law, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, UK