Volume 8 Issue 2 (2012): New Approaches to Psychodynamic Research
Main Articles

Why Do Care Workers Withdraw From Elderly Care? Researcher's Language as a Hermeneutical Key

Anne Liveng
Roskilde Universitet
Published November 27, 2012
  • care worker,
  • elderly care,
  • care relationship,
  • existential anxiety,
  • researcher subjectivity,
  • research process,
  • observation note,
  • life-historical interview,
  • interpretation group,
  • hermeneutical key,
  • scenic memory,
  • projective identification
  • ...More


Care workers frequently withdraw from elderly people in their care; this has resulted in a number of scandals in the media. Here I analyze an empirical scene observed at an old people’s home in Denmark, which contains behavioral patterns among the care workers which could be seen as withdrawal. At the same time it illustrates the care workers' commitment to the elderly. A paradoxical "empathy at a distance" is characteristic of the scene. When analyzing my written observations in an interpretation group, my use of language was a point of discussion. What did it mean when I described the interactions between care workers and elderly residents in words commonly used to describe mother-child interactions? My use of language became a "hermeneutical key" which enabled a psychoanalytically inspired interpretation. This focuses on the care relationship as activating our earliest memories of our own care relations, independently of whether we are in the role of care providers or care receivers. Through collusion theory, the interpretation accepts both the anxiety which the helpless elderly people arouse in the care workers and their motivation for care work as two sides of a subjectively important theme. The article illustrates how working consciously with the researcher's subjectivity makes it possible to understand apparently irrational patterns. The insights thus gained may be used to prevent withdrawals in care work as an argument for care workers’ need for emotional supervision.