In the “From the Archive” series, we will highlight articles published throughout the journal’s history. We look forward to sharing with our readers these samples of the innovative research that CMP has published on the cultural life of medicine across the globe.
Recently, one of our readers on the Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry Twitter account requested that our next “From the Archive” post address an aspect of aging and community. In the spirit of the reader’s suggestion, this week we are featuring a 2008 article by Bianca Brijnath and Lenore Manderson entitled “Discipline in Chaos: Foucault, Dementia and Aging in India.” (you can find out more about the article here: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11013-008-9111-5.)
The authors posit that caregivers for those with dementia are important providers of structure: they are responsible for the patient’s hygiene, diet, and medical needs, as well as accountable for the actions of people who, experiencing symptoms of dementia, sometimes act out in ways which are not consistent with public cultural norms. Typically in India, such care falls into the hands of younger relatives. Domestic caregiving by these family members “prevents the demented body from threatening the stability of the social body.” There are tremendous “social anxieties,” the authors write, surrounding the potential for someone with dementia to resist normative behaviors per the local codes of social life.
The Foucauldian stream of thought here is quite present: the caregiver must “discipline” the body of the dementia patient to reinforce the cultural codes of the society in which both actors live. Although there exists the notion of seva, or the submission of younger relatives to the direction and advice of older relatives, this idea of the respected and powerful elder is complicated in the face of dementia where the power to attend to another person is rather reversed. Instead of being disciplined by the familial patriarchs or matriarchs, younger relatives must both discipline the elder who is unable to provide the social structure for themselves, as well as their own bodies by taking on new routines and practices to accommodate their family member with the illness.
Power, however, is still bi-directional: those with dementia have extraordinary power in altering the routines of their familial caregivers, and even act out violently: the authors note they may “kick, hit, punch, bite, and threaten with a weapon” when they are upset, and are not necessarily expected to limit these actions on their own due to their condition. The transactions of power, agency, and authority in these relationships are resonant with similar social exchanges as explored via the Foucauldian lens in other Western settings.
Brijnath and Manderson’s piece highlights important features in the care of dementia patients, and demonstrates that community-based models of caregiving for the elderly are not as simple as the removal of power from the elderly individual and the installation of authority in the caregiver. The caregiver, too, is both self-disciplined and disciplined by the acting out of their ward.