Among the 17 women interviewed or writing first-person about their experience of political activism in Helena Earnshaw and Angharad Penrhyn Jones' invigorating book Here We Stand is Eileen Chubb, founder of the charity and campaign Compassion in Care. She became, much to her own surprise, an activist after working for years in care homes run by Bupa, and discovering widespread abuse of the elderly inhabitants. At the bottom of the homepage of the CiC website is a melancholy dedication to Pat Gifford that reads: “After witnessing the abuse of a loved one in a care home, Pat Gifford was so affected by this experience that she became increasingly afraid of growing older and needing care herself that she took her own life.”
Zero Down is set in a small-town care home in which abuse of the elderly patients is carried out on a daily basis: not by staff but by management, who allow the store cupboard to run out of wet wipes and humans to sit in their own faeces for hours before bothering to send a nurse to them. These are all typical of the routine cost-cutting carried out by an organisation run in the service of profitability and not in accord with basic humanity. Working on zero-hour contracts, the nurses are expected to pass their shift not at bedsides but in a staff room, waiting to be summoned by electronic buzzer to a specific patient, clocking in only as and when they are called. Unsurprisingly, this raises the women's own stress levels and sets them at odds with each other.
Writer Sarah Hehir tells two stories here: the visible one of the working women on stage, and the invisible one of the disintegrating humans trapped in their beds. One of the nurses, Benni, is a single mother of three at the mercy of a neoliberal economy, failing to keep her head above water because the system is constructed for her to drown: sympathy for her contracts each time she spews a racist slur, then expands as she reveals her detailed knowledge of individual patients' tastes, habits and frailties. That kindness is contrasted with the exploitative purpose of Erin, an aspiring journalist reading up on female war reporters as she attempts to make her mark by following the example of Eileen Chubb. The distance between conniving Erin and compassionate Eileen becomes clear, however, when the young woman confesses that changing the soiled nappy of a patient makes her think that euthanasia is a good idea. Her tone creates an ambiguity as to whether she means self-elective.
The picture of decrepitude that Hehir presents has almost nothing appealing about it. It's not just a dramatic construct that Benni is the mother of small children: whether at home or at work, her life is one of changing nappies. But she also describes carrying a male patient to the toilet to spare his feelings of mortification at being so infantilised: an act of generosity that helps him continue to value his life. But that generosity also requires the energy of the young: in Michael Haneke's acutely observed film Amour, an elderly man grows unable to care for his declining wife, and when money can no longer buy what she needs, he, like Erin, begins to see euthanasia as their only option. The question woven through both strands of Zero Down is one of value: how shall we value human existence, and what happens when power and profit are the margins or expression of that value? (MC)
Zero Down is on at 13.00 at Pleasance Courtyard until August 29th (not 18th). Wheelchair Access, Level Access, Hearing Loop - https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/zero-down
Publisher page for Here We Stand: http://www.honno.co.uk/dangos.php?ISBN=9781909983021
Compassion in Care: http://www.compassionincare.com/
What exactly is neoliberalism?: https://www.dissentmagazine.org/blog/booked-3-what-exactly-is-neoliberalism-wendy-brown-undoing-the-demos
Alexander Zeldin discussing Beyond Caring, his play about workers on zero-hours contracts: http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/the-director-as-god-is-bullshit/
Diary of a woman who chose euthanasia: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2008/aug/23/euthanasia.cancer