Senses of care: Embodying inequality and sustaining personhood in the home care of older adults in Chicago

by Elana D. Buch

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In paid home care—one of the fastest-growing occupations in the United States—low-wage workers help elderly clients living in their own homes remain independent by embodying and then reproducing the elders’ lifetimes of experience. Exploring the bodily and moral consequences of everyday home care practices in Chicago, I show that in this context, sustaining independent personhood depended on and intensified unequal social relations. To sustain clients’ personhood, workers developed a deeply embodied empathy that enabled them to imagine and re-create the elders’ social and sensory worlds. Home care practices involved unreciprocated circulations of bodily experience that led some workers to feel that the needs and preferences of their clients took priority over their own comfort and well-being. Care workers’ bodily practices thus became one way in which social hierarchies shaped individual subjectivities and came to seem morally legitimate.