Tag Archives: asylum attendants

Time and Tasking

Family Life Could Be Ovewhelming, While Still Not Comparable to Caring for Adults in an Asylum

Family Life Could Be Ovewhelming, While Still Not Comparable to Caring for Adults in an Asylum

Ward attendants were the backbone of patient care in asylums, and their attitudes and skills could make or break a patient’s experience (see last post). At the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, attendants were never trained and very likely relied on their home experiences with raising children or being around perhaps difficult family members. The stress and tempo of caring for several children at home might mimic some of the tasks of attendants, but it made a difference that attendants were usually dealing with adults rather than children. Carrying a small child to a bath–even an unwilling one–might be stressful, but a parent would prevail. That might not be so true in the asylum setting. Here are just some of the routine tasks male attendants were expected to complete for ten or more patients each day:

— wake patients up (6:00 a.m.) and see that each patient washes his face and hand, and combs his hair

— attend the morning cleaning, bedmaking and tidying of the ward

— see that the lavatories, tubs, toilets and urinals are in good working order and not leaking. Fixtures are to be washed whenever necessary and scrubbed with a cleaning powder at least once daily. All faucets are to be polished whenever necessary

— all wood work is to be rubbed down once daily with an oiled cloth

Willard Asylum Patients Working in the Sewing Room. Structured Activities Made Supervision Easier for Attendants

Willard Asylum Patients Working in the Sewing Room. Structured Activities Made Supervision Easier for Attendants

In addition to these duties, attendants had to take patients to the dining room, feed those who could not feed themselves, bathe and change the clothing (or at least clean and change) patients who soiled themselves, take each able-bodied patient outdoors for exercise at least twice daily, shave them once a week, give them haircuts and trim their nails, and on and on. Patients were always to be supervised, and attendants were never to leave their wards except if duty required. Before doing that, they had to make sure no patient had a lighted pipe or cigarette, etc.

Agnews Insane Asylum Patients Eating Lunch, courtesy Detroit Public Library Digital Collections

Agnews Insane Asylum Patients Eating Lunch, courtesy Detroit Public Library Digital Collections

It is little wonder that being an attendant was not an attractive job, and didn’t usually draw people who could get easier work with better pay, elsewhere.

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Asylum Adjustment

Wet Sheet Pack, 1902, Used to Calm Patients

Wet Sheet Pack, 1902, Used to Calm Patients

No one could be pleased to find him or herself unexpectedly in an insane asylum (see last post) and it is remarkable that so many patients (who later wrote about their experiences) managed to stay calm enough to protect themselves. Patients able to keep their cool and observe the situation quickly saw that protests did them no good, nor did stubbornness or resistance in any form. Continue reading

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Pay Matters

Clifford Beers

Superintendents considered their authority and standing important, but they also appreciated a well-paid job with a cash salary. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, a superintendent’s salary of (usually) a couple of thousand dollars a year was a tremendous step up from the several hundred that many other doctors made. Outside of cities, doctors often had to accept produce or other goods in lieu of cash, or continually dun patients for payment. As the head of an asylum, superintendents were comparatively well-off and secure.

Good salaries did not apply to attendants. Clifford Beers, who described his own mental illness and stay in an asylum (beginning in 1900) in A Mind That Found Itself, said that his institution employed “the meanest type of attendant–men willing to work for the paltry wage of eighteen dollars a month.”

Beers's Account of His Asylum Experience, courtesy Museum of Disability

Beers spoke of one good attendant who was very kind to him, but of others, said: “[they] did not strike me with their fists, but their unconscious lack of consideration…was torture. Another of the same sort cursed me with a degree of brutality which I prefer not to recall.” Another attendant cursed and spat on Beers when he did not promptly obey an order.

Beers graduated from Yale in 1897; this photo is from 1895 but includes students from 1896 and 1897.

Yale Class Photo, 1895.

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