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Before empowerment: residents' memories of the role of the housemother in diaconal residential care settings in Germany 1945–1995


  • D. HÄNDLER-SCHUSTER PhD MScN MS (nurse edu) RN,

    Corresponding author
    1. Lecturer, School of Health Professions, Institute of Nursing, ZUAS Zurich University of Applied Sciences, Zurich Canton, Switzerland
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    1. Professor of Nursing (Mental Health), Diaconical University of Applied Sciences (FHdD), Bielefeld, Nordrhein-Westfalen
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  • J. BEHRENS PhD habil

    1. Professor and Head of the School (Institute) of Health and Nursing Science, Board of the German and Austrian Conference of the Deans of Nursing Science Faculties and President of the Middle and South German Nursing Science Research, Medical Faculty Halle-Wittenberg, Halle (Saale), Sachsen-Anhalt, Germany
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D. Händler-Schuster, School of Health Professions, Institute of Nursing, ZUAS Zurich University of Applied Sciences, Turbinenstrasse 71, P.O. Box, CH-8401 Winterthur, Switzerland, E-mail:


Accessible summary

  • In German institutions for people with mental illness, some woman lived and worked as ‘housemothers’. In the 20th century, they played a very important role. This paper is based on interviews with people who lived in these institutions and looks at their experiences of a place where carers and people with mental illness lived together.

  • Housemothers often spent decades living and working in the institutions. There are three main phases to their development: (1) ‘Setting out as bride: borrowed power and domination’; (2) ‘Realizing one's potential as a housemother: applied power and domination’; and (3) ‘Leaving the housemother function: lost power and domination’.

  • The findings show that the housemothers often felt that they did not get enough recognition for what they did from the deacons. Deacons in Germany are ministers in the Protestant Church who also have special training in social care. Housemothers did not just do housework; they were also caregivers who played a decisive role in resource-oriented care. The concepts of power and domination are very important here.

  • The historical concept of houseparents helps us understand the current discussion about new forms of residential care homes and psychiatric care.


In the 20th century, houseparent families represented a significant resource in the long-term care of people with mental illnesses and physical disabilities in diaconical care settings in Germany. In theory, such families could therefore be understood as a type of institutional family: groups which occasionally use familial patterns of reciprocity but are not themselves families. As little empirical material on life in institutional families existed, a qualitative study was undertaken to explore the experiences of contemporary witnesses, particularly those who had experienced the duties and responsibilities of housemothers in the second half of the 20th century. This paper has combined the experiences of residents (n= 8) and biological children of houseparents (n= 5) from a qualitative study (n= 42). The qualitative study took a grounded theory approach, with the phenomena of power and domination forming the central category. The findings show that life in houseparent families of the time was shaped by rules which the family members had to obey. This study explores a highly controversial area which is of great relevance for current mental health nursing practice: the power relations in diaconal families. This demonstrates the importance of integrating autonomy and empowerment into everyday communal life and contributes to professional nursing practice.