Tough Questions: Protecting the Elderly, or Violation of Privacy?

Many of you who are following the discussions about police brutality in the United States are aware of the call for mandatory body cams on police officers. While this alone will probably do little to counter the apparently abysmal quality of police training, which leads so many officers to commit murder with little to no provocation whatsoever, it is generally agreed that body cams would be a good idea, at least to obtain unbiased evidence of exactly what happened during an altercation which results in someone being severely injured or killed. While policemen are on duty and in public they have no expectation of privacy, and thus body cams would not violate their rights in this regard.

However, recent news out of Australia is bringing up the question of surveillance in a different, and potentially far more complicated context. It involves surveillance in elderly homes, where patients are at particular risk of abuse as they are often too frail to fight back, or are unable to communicate what is being done to them to people outside of the facility.

A woman, suspicious of how her father was being treated in his nursing home in Adelaide, installed a hidden camera in his room, and caught this on tape. I warn you, the video contains abuse of an elderly man.


The nurse is, quite clearly, attempting to smother the man in his bed. The statistics mentioned in the video are also startling, claiming that 1 in 20 elderly people in Australia are victims of abuse. This is definitely a problem that needs to be addressed in the country.

However, the proposed solution of mandatory CCTV cameras in nursing homes brings with it far more concerns regarding privacy than any discussion relating to police body cams. In this particular scenario, I’m sure that the woman who managed to record this was very glad she did so, and I expect that the nurse in question was fired and arrested for her behavior. However, the privacy concerns around keeping elderly people in nursing homes under constant surveillance are troubling.

First of all, who would be monitoring these CCTV feeds? If the answer is security personnel within the nursing home itself, it is very likely that cases of abuse will be found and go unreported. Secondly, while the nurses and staff are simply employees who can go home at the end of their shifts, the residents live there. That is their home, and CCTV cameras would be monitoring them in their homes 24/7, which would surely qualify as a violation of privacy. Who wants to spend their last years on this Earth being recorded and monitored every minute of every day, like a rat in a behavioral experiment? Not to mention the fact that those cameras would be picking up medical visits, sponge baths, and a whole lot of other activities that most people would rather not be watched by complete strangers.

Nor is it completely feasible to ask for the consent of those who would be recorded. Some people who live in nursing homes would be competent to give that consent, but many are not. Also, many of these nursing homes have shared rooms, and what if the residents have different opinions on whether or not they should be recorded? Also, why should someone have to choose between completely giving up their privacy and opening themselves up to potential abuse and neglect?

On the other hand, this apparently rampant elder abuse needs to be addressed. I cannot find it in me to fault that woman for secretly recording this footage when she began to suspect her father was being mistreated. Illegal or not, I probably would have done the same thing, because the instinct to protect the people we love will often outweigh our respect for the law in many circumstances, for many people. She clearly felt powerless to address her concerns, and recording him in secret was the only way she could think of to confront the situation.

There is no denying that there should be more accountability and transparency when it comes to the treatment of the elderly in nursing homes, but how does one address this without serious violations of privacy? Right now, I have no way to answer that question. The only thing I can say is, something needs to be done. It is time to give the elderly, as well as the disabled and the mentally ill a voice, to treat them with with respect as human beings, not as disposable burdens on society. It is this mentality towards these groups of people which makes them so vulnerable to abuse in the first place.



  1. StonedRanger says

    I will be 62 soon and I come from a family with a history of Alzheimer’s. While I am still of sound mind and mostly sound body I can tell you without a moments hesitation that I would gladly give up my right to privacy in a nursing home if it meant I wouldn’t be abused or possibly murdered. This is a no brainer. If im confined to my bed, then what difference does privacy make to me? I don’t pretend to speak for anyone else. I spent the first 22 years of my life being abused either physically or mentally. I will be damned if I should be put through that sort of crap at the end of my life.

  2. says

    Problem is also: how would you catch the abuse? Very clearly there isn’t going to be 1 person per 1 patient watching all interactions with them 24/7. Records like that are unfortunately not uncommon. they’re usually made after relatives suspect abuse. It’s the close relationship that makes them aware something is wrong.
    CCTV to reduce vandalism or theft work because you know when something happened. The mirror in the elevator is broken, nobody reported an accident, you watch the last 24 hrs tape, you get the perp.
    With abuse of the elderly the real big problem is that often nobody will notice unless there is someone who cares. The sad thing is: the abusers’ only mistake was to pick the wrong person, a person with a support system.
    My grandma lives in a nursing home and she is treated very well. But she’s also sound of mind and gets frequent and regular visits from her family.

    The big elephant in the room is the conditions under which nurses often work. They obviously don’t excuse the abuse, but they are a huge contributing factor. At a certain point of work pressure people get into a mindset in which they are no longer functioning rationally. When you’re at that point in your mind you are no longer the powerful person who is able to provide for a helpless person (or abuse them), you become the victim and the person needing help becomes somebody who is shitting their pants just to spite you because it’s a 12 hours shift and you didn’t get much sleep and actually you haven’t eaten anything today and were just about to sit down for a moment to eat your sandwich and now that bastard rings the bell.
    An analogous example would be young mothers with difficult babies: the best method to reduce things like shaken baby syndrome and abuse is to offer support, not to install CCTVs in every nursery.

  3. Excluded Layman says

    The institution doesn’t need to own or access the footage, per se. There’s no privacy issue if you’re recording yourself with a little A/V assistance from others. Further, client ownership of footage naturally allows fine-grained control over disclosure, leaving individuals and their families free to act on their personal needs at their own pace.

    It doesn’t solve the problem of familial neglect overlapping with preclusive disability, but CCTV can’t do any better without a legion of eager geezer-peepers.

    Huh… There’s a Doctor Who premise: You can be safe as long as the security service is watching, but they tire easily. What will you do to keep their eyes on your channel?

  4. agender says

    The legal problem seems to be whether such recordings by family are legal and will be of use in a court of law.
    this should be so. (As to solving/not creating problems, c2 has said it all).
    Permanent surveillance creates lots of data junk that will be abused for sure, but very rarely have good use.
    If police was not known for abuse and murder, there would not be any idea of body cams.
    I wonder, if I had filmed the retraumatization German police did to me, could I have stopped them from destroying other LBGTAQs or women? I doubt it.

    But nursing homes present a much bigger problem as such:
    In the US and most European states suicide and euthanasia are still on the penal law; therefore most people who are in such an institution do not want to be there, or better said: do not want to be alive in such a state at all.
    I personally would, if forced into one, WELCOME a quick death.
    I carry a living will around with me in my bag which says so.
    My problem is, will this be respected (for example, if I have an accident in the street), and will I be left alone to end my existence, if I have symptoms of stroke, dementia or get a diagnosis which says it is no longer theoretical that I am mortal.
    Permanent surveillance is a powerful weapon against self-determination.

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