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Aged care in purgatory

  • 01 June 2009
Sigmund Freud once wrote that the only feeling that doesn't lie is anxiety. This is a hard thing for us to hear, because few feelings terrify us more than anxiety. Anxiety is the way we are affected by the things that we can't change. We might try hard to suppress it, deny it or ignore it, but deep down, it never goes away.

As Freud explained, anxiety is immutable because, ultimately, it is the chill of death's own inevitability. So what happens when we try to do to death what we do to other, more contingent sources of anxiety? How do we try to forget our own mortality? The answer is devastatingly simple: nursing homes.

While there are, no doubt, wonderful aged care facilities that provide community and dignity for those who have entered their twilight years and need additional care, this is not the experience of the majority of our elderly.

Increasingly, the elderly have become ritual sacrifices that we as a society offer to the most implacable of our modern gods: what Hervé Juvin described in his mordant masterpiece, L'avènement du corps, as a kind of provisional immortality, a death-less existence realised in unlimited consumption.

Precisely because they are painful reminders of our mortality, many of our elderly are consigned to substandard, often degrading care as a way of classifying them as not really alive, but 'not yet dead'. Institutionalisation has become a mechanism of our desire to forget death and to go on living unperturbed in our capitalist nirvana.

Our failure to care for and honour our elderly degrades us all. The systemic forgetting of the elderly is one of the great causes of weakness and moral impoverishment in our culture. Lives tempered by age and shaped by hard-earned virtue are gifts from God. It is to our detriment that we ignore them.

Perhaps it is time to revive the long Christian tradition that regarded old age as a theatre of virtue and courage. Ageing was imagined as a kind of final transaction, whereby the elderly show what the good life looks like, having reached the point where they can drop all pretence and start telling the story of their lives honestly.

But the elderly also bear witness to what good death looks like: how to face the completion of one's life with courage and faith. Those gathered around in loving community express their humble gratitude for these