Tag Archives: duties of 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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And the Patients’ Side

Patient Dining Room at West Virginia Hospital for the Insane, 1912

Patient Dining Room at West Virginia Hospital for the Insane, 1912

Employees at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians had clear instructions concerning their duties, including the all-important attendants who were at the heart of patient care. (See last post.) They were charged with keeping rooms neat and clean, attending to their patients’ needs in terms of clothing and personal care–basically what anyone would expect of an institution set up to care for the insane. The reality was often different, and the conditions many patients lived under would have been disheartening.

Though foreign to their own experience on or off a reservation, patients arriving at Canton Asylum when it first opened would have walked into a spacious, light-filled building. Electricity and running water might have been exciting to use, and regular meals supplemented by garden produce would have been tasty and welcome. As the asylum deteriorated over the years, however, patient comfort declined. The early structure had been pretty and airy, with pictures on the walls and nice furniture. As time went on, the pictures disappeared; the floors, clothes, and bedding became dingy and worn; and the nourishing food evolved into a monotonous diet of starches and vegetables. Patients used chamber pots instead of toilets, which allowed human waste to create a stench and promote disease in the midst of crowded rooms.

By the time the asylum closed, one inspector likened patient care at the asylum to that of a prison. Patients who had been sent to the institution for mental problems received no mental health care at all–the whole purpose for the asylum. Ultimately, authorities concluded that almost no amount of money could make the asylum function¬† as it should and decided to shut it down.

Female Ward at Athens Lunatic Asylum, 1893

Female Ward at Athens Lunatic Asylum, 1893

Women's Sewing Room at Spring Grove, 1910s

Women’s Sewing Room at Spring Grove, 1910s

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A Difficult Life for All

People Seated on a Bench Near Van Deusen Cottage, Kalamazoo State Mental Hospital

People Seated on a Bench Near Van Deusen Cottage, Kalamazoo State Mental Hospital

Though patients undoubtedly had wretched experiences at most asylums, the life of an attendant was also difficult. Even in the first decades of the twentieth century, it was usual for attendants and other staff (including physicians) to reside at the asylum where they worked. Continue reading

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