So this piece of writing is a bit of an early morning reflective supervision session at the end of laptop as I take a breath, and pause, and begin to absorb just how truly terrible the casualty numbers are from this virus. In a week which has distorted comprehension to such a point that the deaths of 1000 people per day is framed as ‘promising news of a flattening’ and ‘evidence we may have peaked’. It is probably self indulgent, I should probably just stay quiet, my reflections may not connect at all. But I find writing therapeutic and it’s the first time I have been able to write about this, which is so significantly impacting on social care. Writing may help me. Here goes.
I may be a social worker now, but I started out as a social care worker. In the 4 years after I left school I did a variety of what I considered dead end jobs that paid enough to live for the weekend, I started (but rarely attended) colleges courses which lost my attention within weeks. Coming off the night shift staffing the motorway petrol station one night, I decided I’d check out the job centre postings and see if I could get something on days. Result, I blagged the job of Care Assistant in an old folks home at the end of the street by lying to the Matron, telling her I had always wanted to work in care. She was reluctant, she normally only employed “girls”. She didn’t employ men. I lied further and said that was a shame as the job centre had recommended her home to me as a good equal opportunity employer. The lies worked, yes she was good on “the equalities”. I met her on Sunday and started Monday.
I only remember sketchy details of my first day. However I remember vividly the conversation that night when my girlfriend asked me how it had gone. I remember saying to her I thought I liked it but it was strange. The strangeness, was that I genuinely couldn’t believe that I would get paid for the days work I had done. My previous jobs had been postman, petrol pump attendant, publican and I’d had a season as a strawberry picker. Care Assistant wasn’t like any of them. Don’t get me wrong, there had been been some graft, lifting and handling and moving and making of beds. But I felt like I hadn’t done anything I thought of as being “work”. I’d been paid for hanging around all day talking to the ‘old folk’. Some needed help dressing and assistance to get from one place to another, but that wasn’t work as I knew it. In the afternoon I had read a large print Mills & Boon book out loud to someone called Doris. I had read the book before, to my grandma. It wasn’t work, it was reading a book. It was like everything that I had ever known in my family. It was normal to the point where I had no idea where tasks and skills started or ended. My first day in social care was the first day of everything else. Marriage, children, grandchild, a career and a love for social care, not because it was a job but because nothing else makes sense.
Although over 30 years I have had many experiences that have shaped me, the strangeness of being paid to do social care has stayed with me. That isn’t to say I don’t understand why care workers should get paid properly. I do of course, and my decision to move on from being a care assistant to becoming a care officer with a charity, then a care home manager, before finally commencing my social work career, was largely fueled by money and a need to provide for my family. But the feeling hasn’t gone away. I have qualifications but I don’t feel skilled in anything. I am a professional, but only in being me, whatever that is. Social care has always felt like a complete reflection of who I am, my good points and bad points, laughing, feeling sad, being good at some stuff (like rustling up a quick meal) and being really crap at other stuff (cleaning), it’s always felt like just having to me is somehow, ludicrously, enough for it to be a paid job.
If I am right and others in social care have similar feelings and experiences of what working in social care feels like (and I do get that this stuff might just be me and resonates with no-one else!) this is where I think the ‘and social care’ bit starts. It starts with our collective failure and lack of humility to honestly talk about what social care really is (it’s us, all of us, just being us), to understand the intrinsic value of what those relationships bring to people and, this being the crucial bit for me, to both to the person who may be seen as needing social care support and also for the person who is doing the caring. Reciprocity of social relations and value. Not one doing to the other. Social care is being involved in a mutually dependent, caring relationship, conferring a shared mutual sense of belonging and wellbeing. Not understanding that, tagging social care on to health or education as a transactional set of tasks to be prescribed for and done to people, may be because its too difficult to properly address and a reticence to properly price the value of human to human relationships, leading to an ‘And Social Care’ culture. I watch with a sense of mounting horror the daily virus reports death toll, where deaths in social care settings are not even reported until a journalist challenges the convention of our national response being framed by a celebration of scientific positivism with a professionally taken for granted assumption of the rigour and validity of it’s discipline, evidence base and hierarchy, which we are being strongly instructed to trust without question. I read that deaths in care homes in the UK may today already be over 7,500, that in America they think care home residents may be 5 times more likely to contract this disease than anyone else, and I wonder how we stop ourselves from wandering onto a special path which leads to some lives being less worthy of being reported on and cared about.
What we bring through social care is of huge value. Social care is not medicine, or teaching, and its very value is exactly because of its difference to those other professions. When we walk over the thresholds of peoples houses to help with tea, or talk about football or theatre or the 99 year old Captain who is walking 100 laps of his garden to fundraise for charity whilst we are also helping someone dress, or talking about loves once known or lost whilst supporting people to pay their bills, or read out loud letters from family members or the latest twist in a Mills and Boon, or stand at the sink, doing the washing up as we chat about so and so’s latest daft hair do, this is social care. And in my opinion that is what makes social care all of us, with all our good points and all our failings. Anything other than that stops being relational, it stops being social care, it just isn’t even (especially) if you tag “and” to it.