The Surprisingly Current Questions About Old Age in the 1790 Parliamentary Debates


Age-related dependency care measures are often presented as a modern issue. Wrongly. We invite you to discover here a parliamentary archive of the National Constituent Assembly, the first French democratic body, dating from 1790, already presenting a draft decree aimed at laying down public assistance for the elderly.

If the document is old, it surprisingly echoes our contemporary system. Not only does it offer modern solutions and foreshadows our dependency care system, but it also introduces the debate on the social utility of the assisted and the obligation to render a service to the community to obtain superior assistance. .

Debate which is still relevant today.

This little-known text thus allows us to take a step back from current exchanges by emphasizing that these issues (dignity, duty of assistance, financing, etc.) have arisen in identical terms for several centuries and with as much acuity...

When the procedures crush the human

The report of the Begging Commission was presented on August 31, 1790, and then had a proposal for a decree. In its Title III, dedicated to helping the elderly and the infirm, it immediately announces the universality of the feeling of respect towards "those weakened by age", before developing:

"[In] relief granted to old age, we must not, however, have forgotten that public assistance would lose the character of benevolence, if it deviated from the invariable rules of apparent severity, important to maintain in relief that the foresight of those who have recourse to it may perhaps have rendered them useless, and yet compatible with the comforts, the care, the consideration due to infirmity and old age.

It was to unite all these views that your committee first occupied itself with sparing the destitute old man the harrowing spectacle of his own infirmities, which he saw, so to speak, multiply before his eyes in the hospitals. You have seen in our previous reports on these hospices of suffering humanity, that the poor, often embittered by the feeling of his misery and his ills, chagrin at seeing himself surrounded only by privations and disgusting objects, murmur without ceases against administrations and administrators; that reflection adds to the weight of his misfortune, and leaves him no other hope than death, which must put an end to it. »

We find there a very modern criticism of the assistance provided to the elderly, and in particular of the bureaucracy and the procedural aspect of the care measures. This criticism, carried today by the research of sociologists of work such as michel crozier ou Norbert Alter, finds a particular echo in the recent cases of institutional abuse.

The report also mentions the fact that hospitals, because of the large number of their agents, have a habit of diverting the relief allocated to the most deprived: a sign of an early awareness of the notion of vulnerability... and the necessary implementation of social procedures to compensate for dependency.

The text continues with a violent indignation pleading for the maintenance obligation (it will have to wait for the civil code to be reborn). The committee tells us:

“But we have had to remember, with painful feeling, that there are, to the shame of mankind, children, or rather monsters, to whom nature seems to have denied the sweet feeling of family piety; ungrateful sons who, forgetting the weakness and the needs of their first years, do not recognize the helping hand that paternal tenderness extended to their childhood. This crime against nature, against which the law has but little hold, seemed to us to be able to be sufficiently punished only by public opinion; from there this provision that we dare to present to you and which deprives of the rights of citizen the ungrateful or denatured son, who, with the means of looking after the old days of that of which it received the life, would refuse with this crowned duty; we send it back to the reprobation of the whole society. »

The financial basics of home assistance

The report lays down the basic principles of home assistance, and more particularly its financing.

He insists on the geographical disparities preventing, according to him, to define a fixed tariff for the whole of the territory. A subsistence income is offered, indexed as follows:

“The bases which we have adopted for fixing relief at home, consist in taking in the different parts of the kingdom, for maximum of this relief, a price proportionate to the necessary means of subsistence, and in graduating them according to the diminution of forces or the increase of years. We have thought it our duty to subject these public expenditures to multiple forms; and you will recognize with us, Gentlemen, that this kind of indispensable rigor will be a powerful dam that the administrators will be able to oppose to the importunate and ill-founded demands of carelessness and greed. »

An approach which clearly evokes that adopted today in the evaluation of the amounts of aid provided under thePersonalized autonomy allowance (APA).

This report also introduces the notion of societal debt which entails a need for reparation through the assistance of the nation. He expresses it in these terms:

"We therefore propose to grant to the weak old man, living in common, a salary in kind, of easy preparation, simple, substantial, with a slight remuneration in money which he can dispose of as he pleases to obtain the sweets which he will agree. The character of freedom which distinguishes this last kind of help, seemed to us the most suitable for consoling old age, by paying off the debt of society. »

We can thus find, in addition to the introduction of debt, very modern concepts for the time relating to the freedom of seniors to dispose of themselves.

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Respect for the person and their dignity

The notion of dignity thus turns out to be a question that has its origins in the early hours of our Republic – and which, it seems, has not yet found an answer.

This question has an important place in this report. Already mentioned when “administrations and administrators” were criticized, it is also expressed by taking into account an often forgotten need: that of pleasure and distraction. The proposal for financial allowances, albeit low, should enable the elderly, in addition to taking their basic needs into account, to have access to what two centuries later thenurse Virginia Anderson will call the "need to recreate or achieve".

Concerned about encouraging idleness and lack of foresight through overly generous assistance, the authors thus justified the measure as follows:

“As it is neither in your principles, nor in those of a sound policy, that the improvident man should not be treated as well in his old age as the one who spares himself resources, we thought that the treatment , both in kind and in money, should only be sufficient, and limited to the strictest necessary. »

However, in order not to inflict too strict a treatment, and probably considering that the non-impotent old person should be able to enjoy additional means, the report recommends that hospitals should organize themselves to allow those who wish to do so to carry out "various suitable works ". This is so that the old person benefiting from assistance can draw additional income through his work.

The report believes that in this work the individual will find “an attraction which gives him hope for a better fate on the edges of the grave”. It is also, according to him, "for youth, an example of work until the most advanced end of life". The parallel with current debates can be made here again, whether it is the conditioning of the RSA to “volunteer” work or the decline in the legal retirement age. The main principles that drive these measures display a certain similarity with the reasons set out here.

A historical testimony

Beginning of Title III, Aid to the aged and infirm
These parliamentary debates on the issue of “old age” dependency are among the oldest known on these issues.
BNF Gallica

These debates, held on August 31, 1790 within the National Constituent Assembly, undoubtedly represent one of the oldest transcriptions of the issue of age-related dependency in French political debate. We can indeed consider that this period of transition between the monarchical regime and the First Republic as the breeding ground for major societal upheavals that France will experience throughout the XNUMXth century.

Although this draft decree has never really found application, it reflects a concern for the treatment given to the elderly and informs us about the conditions of their care. This assistance is then provided in two forms: either at home for the elderly with sufficient family support, or in hospital for the less fortunate.

This leads us to think that our “modern” debates, if they are not of recent birth, are indeed linked to the origins of contemporary society. This can be seen as evidence of the complexity of resolving care worthy of old age. Support which should lead us to answer it with the necessary seriousness to a question that has still not found an acceptable solution although it was presented in conditions similar to ours more than 220 years ago.

Sebastien Dambrine, PhD student in health economics, Sorbonne Paris North University

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Creative Commons / Wikimedia

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