A public secret: assisted living, caregivers, globalization

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Kathleen Woodward


Frail elderly and their caregivers are virtually invisible in representational circuits (film, the novel, photography, television, the web, newspapers), with the elderly habitually dismissed as non-citizens and their caregivers often literally not citizens of the nation-states in which they work. How can we bring what is a scandalous public secret of everyday life into visibility as care of the elderly increasingly becomes a matter of the global market in our neoliberal economies? This essay explores the representation of caregivers and elders, together, in photographs, the memoir, news and feature stories, and documentary film, suggesting that one of the most effective modes of advocating for changes in public policy is engaging people’s understanding through stories and images. In this study, I consider stories of assisted living, which involve elders, who are white, and paid caregivers, who are people of color, gendered female, and part of global care chains; these stories include American writer Ted Conover’s New York Times Magazine feature story ’’The Last Best Friends Money Can Buy’’ (1997) and Israeli Tomer Heymann’s documentary film ’’Paper Dolls’’ (2006). Of key importance is a feeling of kinship as new forms of the family take shape.


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