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Opinion | Faces in a Nursing Home

While I pushed carts laden with dinner trays at the nursing home, I often asked myself what would change if I responded as Levinas believes I should to the “height” the residents held over me. It was not an idle question. The fact that I was serving meals reflected a crisis endemic to nursing homes across the country: Rarely have so many depended on so few for so much.

Since mid-March, when they locked their doors to all visitors, long-term care facilities in Texas have created the cruelest of contradictions. In order to defend the physical health of their residents, the residences are damaging their emotional health. Confronted with a dizzying surge in Covid-19 cases — since the start of the pandemic, some 4,000 Texas nursing home residents have died and thousands more have been infected — administrators were understandably fearful. Overnight, the word “visitation” had lurched from its everyday meaning of a family member coming to call to its archaic sense of divine wrath coming to afflict.

But their success in stemming the pandemic’s onslaught has created — to use the state’s own phrase — a metastasizing “failure to thrive” among the residents. How could it be otherwise? At my understaffed nursing home, my co-workers struggled to meet the basic demands of the residents: cleaning and changing, shifting and shuttling, serving and supporting them. Or, indeed, understanding them. When residents leave their rooms, they must wear masks. Their voices, already weak, are even more muffled.

And their faces are partly hidden. Back in the room, though, those same faces — revealing an infinite variety of tints and textures, shapes and sizes — also remind me of my responsibilities. But how to fulfill them? Caught between the resident I was with who alternated between nibbling and yodeling and the sight of all the trays I still had to deliver, Levinas’s rule of infinite responsibility toward the Other struck me as infinitely impractical.

Still, a rule may be impractical, yet still relevant. As Levinas would remind us, duty toward the Other applies not just to nursing home workers, but also to state and federal institutions. They have the same duty toward residential workers that the workers have toward their residents. By increasing financial support to these residences — which operate on razor-thin margins — these authorities would help enable the residences, by increasing the number and salaries of their staffs, to acknowledge the ethical authority that their residents have over all of us. If, as Levinas declared, “the future is the Other” then we all have a duty toward those we are consigning to the past.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor at the University of Houston and the author of, most recently, “Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment,” and the forthcoming “The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas.”

Now in print: “Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments,” and “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” with essays from the series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.

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