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Undercover in a nursing home: What constitutes good care?

During the Christmas Holidays, on the advice of one of my colleagues, I watched a fascinating documentary The Mole Agent. In this idiosyncratic mix of spy film and observational documentary, 83-year-old Sergio goes undercover in a nursing home in Chile. As far as I am concerned, this documentary is really a must-see for anyone who is interested in the social-cultural image of care for older people, affection and loneliness in old age, and the question of what good care for older people entails. Even though the documentary is situated in Latin American context, it poses important questions of much broader relevance.

The Chilean director Maite Alberdi came up with a fairly ingenious plan. She herself worked for a while as an assistant for a detective agency and noticed that private detectives were mainly called in by suspicious parties within a close relationship. Notably, she also noticed an increase in the number of detective cases taking place in nursing homes. Apparently, people increasingly do not seem to trust the standard of care provided there. And then Maite decided to settle down with her film crew in such a home. She tells the staff and residents that she is making a documentary about nursing homes, which is true, but at the same time she follows the undercover operation of Sergio, the mole.

Sergio, aged 83, is a widower looking for distraction. He responded – along with dozens of other over-80s who were up for a serious assignment – to an ad in the local newspaper and goes on a job interview with Romulo, the boss of a detective agency: Is he willing and able to infiltrate in a nursing home as a spy? And what about his proficiency in the digital world? After all, he will have to take photos and videos with a mobile phone, send voice messages via WhatsApp, work with a pen camera, and so on. Sergio takes up the challenge and gets the job.

The contracting client turns out to be the daughter of one of the residents of the home. She suspects that her mother is being abused, maybe even robbed. To find evidence for this suspicion, Sergio goes undercover in a nursing home with 40 women and four men. As a healthy, interested and well-dressed gentleman, he quickly becomes the favorite of many of the ladies, and positively thrives on all the attention. Struggling with his new cell phone, he sends the recordings of his undercover operations to his boss, who expresses considerable irritation if after a while he still doesn’t find evidence for the suspected neglect.

What starts as a humorous spy film gradually turns into something much more intimate. As such, the film gives an original view of the care for older people and the role of society in it. The undercover operation prompts reflection on how older people are treated, not so much by the staff, but mainly by family and the wider society. What Sergio finds out is not that there is a lack of good care; rather his undertaking casts a light on the loneliness of residents and their disconnection with important others as well as with society. This is partly because they get so few visits from loved ones, such as children and grandchildren. But also because they no longer feel involved in life and society in any way. The residents are not mistreated or robbed in the home; that turns out to have been a preconception in the mind of the sponsor of the spy campaign, who herself hardly ever steps across the threshold of the nursing home.

While watching I sometimes almost forget that The Mole Agent is not fiction, but a documentary, a true story. It is inventive in the way it highlights a social problem that we, as scholars in ageing and gerontology, have of course been dealing with for decades. As such, it is not a new story, but in my view, it does offer a new and original perspective by showing us the lives of lonely older people through the eyes of a dedicated detective in his eighties who brings a lot of excitement, humor and love into play. The documentary also painfully displays the potential stigmatisation and bias of an outsider view. All in all, I would say that the Mole Agent can serve as an inspiration for anyone who studies what constitutes good care of aged people.

About the author: Els van Wijngaarden is an Associate Professor in Care Ethics, University of Humanistic Studies, Utrecht, The Netherlands. She was an Academic Visitor at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing in 2018.

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