Panorama: How modernity treats the infirm
Scenes from last night’s BBC Panorama programme were so disturbing, I feel they may indelibly be etched in my mind. “Care” workers, dragging vulnerable young people around, physically and verbally abusing them, taunting them, torturing them, with impunity as nurses and fellow staff looked on, seemingly unfazed. How has it come to this, that tyrants like those working at Castlebeck can seemingly impose their reign of terror on some of the most defenceless members of our society.
Although this incident is, we are told, an anomaly within the system (this is not to undermine the fantastic work many care workers do undertake), I’d often been struck myself by the coldness and at times harshness I’d witnessed in care homes.
Rather than assume the behaviour of those involved is a hiccup in an otherwise well-functioning system, it is worth questioning whether the attitudes of disdain and disrespect manifested by these workers is not an extreme example of a broader societal attitude towards the elderly and the handicapped. In other words, does how we view the vulnerable have an impact on how they are treated?
According to the website Disability Planet, “the media continue to enforce disability stereotypes portraying disabled individuals in a negative un-empowering way.” Paul Hunt’s 1991 study, identified 10 stereotypes that the media use to portray disabled people, including portraying them as pitiable or pathetic, an object of curiosity or violence, sinister or evil, the ‘super cripple’, as laughable, his/her own worst enemy, a burden, non-sexual and unable to participate in daily life. Several authors and researchers have also shown that the elderly are generally portrayed negatively on television. In commercials, when older characters are shown, they’re often portrayed as either victims or villains according to Educational Gerontology, 9: 111-122, 1983. Other studies have shown that of the few elders who do appear on TV in one or another capacity, almost all are male and only one in ten characters judged to be 65 or older is female. Thus, if we assume that what has meaning and status for society finds, its way onto television screens, the message conveyed seems to be that the elderly are not very important, and that among that population group, only men have significance. The study also showed that when older persons do appear on screen, they tend to be “more comical, stubborn, eccentric, and foolish than other characters.” Is it any wonder then that these attitudes are also found to be manifest amongst those we entrust with the sensitive issue of personal care of disabled and elderly people.
The flip side of modernity’s obsession with youth and anything new, best epitomised by the ever younger stars gracing our screens, the Justin Biebers and Miley Syrus’ (at 29, Britney is past her prime which began when she was 17), is its profound contempt for anything “old” – traditional, classical. It is telling that when one searches for synonyms of traditional, the dictionary offers “out-moded, old-fashioned, out of date.” Even when it comes to music, classical composition is suffering as interest in it has waned, despite efforts to jazz up the “old” by injecting the usual remedy of youth+beauty in the form of Myleene Klass . History A-Level is gradually being effaced as our youth become convinced that they are the beholders of all that is meaningful, and disregard the lessons of our predecessors. It is no wonder that the wisdom of old is deemed mere “fairtytales” or that the advice of our elders with their accumulated life lessons is so easily derided as out of touch with our continuously shifting norms. And it is little wonder then that when the less scrupulous amongst us are in the presence of the elderly or infirm, they manifest a more extreme example of the broader disdain we reserve them.
In a world in which social evolution is as readily accepted as scientific evolution – it’s a dog eat dog world, eat them for breakfast, it’s a jungle out there, survival of the fittest – the vulnerable elements of our society end up paying the price of a philosophy which views their physical weakness, be they handicapped, elderly or female (or God forbid all three!) as undermining their human worth and as naturally entailing their inferior status. Our inability to find worth in those who do not conform to the model of youthful physical perfection portrayed as meaningful in our public sphere, has severe consequences on those with the least ability to make their voice heard, as this recent incident highlights. While few things stir human emotion like an attack on the defenceless, as long as we continue to view such as abuses in isolation, we are failing to address the underlying causes of the standard sequestration and sporadic mistreatment, of the vulnerable sections of our community. The staff at Castleback weren’t acting out of sync with how we view the vulnerable, the main difference is that they acted out their feelings in the belief they were protected by the broader ambience of contempt surrounding the physically impaired.
News that another major care provider, Southern Cross, which runs 750 residential homes, is likely to collapse, leaving its 31,000 elderly residents and their families facing an uncertain future, suggests the need for a profound rethinking of how we care for the vulnerable members of our society.
The instinctual, and most basic moral revulsion we may feel faced with abuse like that which occured at Castlebeck, should not mask the part the erosion of ‘traditional’ values, such as respect for our elders, empathy and kindness (at odds with the “badman” image of the generation of here and now) and the depreciation of the worth of their accumulated wisdom, most poignantly illustrated by their geographical isolation from broader society, has to play in feeding the climate in which such abuses can so easily flourish.