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Solitary Confinement

What happens to people in solitary confinement? I listened to this TED talk on my way to meet a friend this morning. According to the presenter, there are tens of thousands of people in solitary confinement in the USA. Some have been locked up in a 2mx2m cell for more than 30 years, with no windows, being allowed out into a wire cage for one hour a day. Food is shoved through a gap in the door. One man befriended a wasp – fed it, chatted to it. All in an effort to not go insane. In Australia, a good friend is trying to do research on older people living with cognitive impairment in Australian prisons. She has been trying to gain access to a prison in Sydney for the past seven months – with no success.

So you know where this is going… At the conference in Vienna, there was a presentation by a PhD student “Understanding self and age in the carceral setting”. It is not a pretty picture. Our sense of Self is formed and de ned by our interaction with others. When we are positioned as “prisoners” we automatically lose the free ability to construct a healthy sense of self. Taking away our negotiation ability, and our reciprocal engagement to form a sense of Self is a prison sentence in itself. The TED talk elaborates on how people in prison eventually start losing their sight as they never focus on a far horizon. They lose their sense of being-in-the-world, and would begin cutting themselves or smearing faeces over themselves in a desperate attempt to actually place themselves in the world as a living human Being.

For anyone working in long-term care, this will be familiar. There is not a nurse working in Aged Care who has not seen this happening – older people who start scratching themselves until it bleeds, smearing faeces all over themselves. Even a negative stimulant is a validation of being alive. The smell of faeces, the pain of skin scratched until it bleeds means “I am still here”. Naomi Feil, the founder of Validation Therapy, talks about older people who become “living dead people”. We have to bear witness. It is time to question the practice of long-term (so-called) care and its infringement on the basic human rights of older people. No person, regardless of their age, their crime or their cognitive ability, deserves to be locked up in solitary confinement or a frail care bed with cot sides, their only human contact being fed or cleaned. When we kill the soul of another human being by depriving them of validation, of a purpose (other than being a passive recipient of “care”), we are indeed guilty of a heinous crime. Older people deserve to be part of a community, and intergenerational society where they are revered and honoured.

We have to bear witness, but more than that we have to become activists to stand up against ageism and institutionalisation. We must create a new way of Being, so help me God, for if I am to be put in a “frail care” one day all hell will break loose. Be warned.

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