A life worth living

Temporality, care, and personhood in the Danish welfare state

by METTE N. SVENDSEN, LAURA E. NAVNE, IBEN M. GJØDSBØL, and MIE S. DAM

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Caregiving can be conceptualized as involving practices of substitution, in which doctors, nurses, and health assistants step into the subject positions of their charges in order to sustain their personhood and compensate for their reduced capacities. Fieldwork in Denmark at three sites—a neonatal intensive care unit, a research laboratory using piglets as animal models, and a dementia nursing home—shows that temporality is a key component in substitution, as caregivers imagine their charges’ temporal horizons when stimulating their personhood in the ambiguous zone between life and death. Substitution practices redirect our attention from the question of what it means to be human to what it takes to, for example, turn premature infants, research piglets, and people with dementia into beings with worthy lives.

Caring for a compromised premature piglet in in a Copenhagen laboratory, a graduate student blows air into its lungs to optimize its chances of survival, April 2013.
Caring for a compromised premature piglet in in a Copenhagen laboratory, a graduate student blows air into its lungs to optimize its chances of survival, April 2013. (Mie S. Dam)