christmas, Social work, child care and history of social work, winter festivals

When the world takes time to breathe: reflections on Christmas.

Nearby  a father and husband is dying, the nurses and family are coming more regularly as the days pass. My first love posts messages between bouts of chemo and my life’s love died of self neglect and depression in an age of outcome driven social welfare unable to be reached by anyone. I  switch on the TV for light relief and it reminds me of donkeys dying of thirst carrying their heavy loads of bricks, an albatross feeding its young with plastic from our seas, of orphans living on the streets,  a toddler in a cardboard box on a main street seemingly invisible to passing shoppers, refugees with nothing and no home, the homeless and friendless. A friend posts on social media that for no apparent reason she is overwhelmed by a great sadness. I understand this. It’s Christmas.

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I am driving home on Christmas Eve from Christmas celebrations , the cloak of darkness is pierced  by homes and houses covered in light, trees flicker at me in the night and inside I picture the families relieved after hours of shopping but with that twinge of anxiety that something which will make the day tomorrow perfect has been forgotten. The cranberry sauce, or the rum butter or more likely the indigestion pills for tomorrow tables and stomachs  will be groaning with food. This is the season of gluttony, of overindulgence, of celebration?? Celebration is often about feasting. I guess this harks back to a time when food was basic and for many in very short supply and for most just enough to keep body and soul together. Now it is not a rare and happy occasion to sample good, special or extra food but a time for eating and drinking ourselves into a stupor and of giving the supermarkets licence to tempt us to evermore extreme delights each year. Our overindulgence extends to present buying, to the yearly increase in the number of strings of lights attached to our homes, to the party bags and the number of gin varieties in fact to every aspect of what we could consider to be our already very well provisioned lives. So what exactly are we so heartily celebrating?

The possible options are numerous, the birth of a Saviour is one. Certainly churches  see an increased attendance at Christmas and that can only be a good thing  giving people a moments quiet and respite from the stress of world at Christmas. A festival of winter is another and certainly we need something to brighten the dark days of the year as we make the slow progress towards spring and the renewal of life. There is much talk of a time for families, of valuing the things that are important to us and of remembering those who we miss or are living away from their families.  There are flaws in all of these , if you do not share the beliefs of the Christian church, are not in tune with the changing seasons and the natural world, have no family or are separated from them, are alone, old or ill then all these reason to celebrate become difficult to accept. Remembering the losses may become very real and only add to the sadness of the daily unhappiness. So what exactly are we celebrating?

Perhaps we are all using our overindulgence to celebrate or remember something special and unique to each of us and the trick is to work out what and how best to use this time of celebration. To do this we need, it seems to me, to rid ourselves of the prescriptive demands of materialism and to develop our own rituals and special moments throughout our winter festival. For me it’s great value is that it is a quiet time, a time when the world stops for a day or so and breathes, of calm and reflection. There is no other moment quite like it, driving home from a family dinner or a Christmas concert in the dark with no one else about, to quote the carol,” All is calm, all is bright.” In the brightness of that reflection I can only conclude that the message of these festivities for me is in the sharpness of the contrasts. That while I am grateful for my good fortune and can celebrate that in whatever way I choose it is also the time to recommit to ensuring that the world is a better place for all those who are sad, lonely or suffering. It matters not that this commitment come from questioning the overindulgent and wasteful materialism of Christmas.  Dying, loss, loneliness and sorrow are in fact just the same whatever time of year the experiences visit us. It is sentiment that makes it seems worse. Or dare I suggest that these untoward events somehow blight the perfection we are led to believe is so important at this time of the year. It only matters that the desire to help lasts all year round. It only matters that we offer ourselves as agents of change , of help, company and solace at Christmas as at any other time. Just  think what could be achieved if we all had a little less and used the money for charitable purposes throughout the year. Or all visited a lonely person on Christmas day or simply stopped to say Happy Christmas and chat to the homeless man who is sitting in the same spot as every other day of his life.  It would be amazing.

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I do hope that you all have had a very Happy Christmas and wish all my readers the very best for 2018.

 

 

 

Getting older, Social work, child care and history of social work

Slips, trips and falls.

It is not all about social work! This was not my first thought as I lay on the bathroom floor in pain surrounded by a variety of debris that I had knocked to the floor on my way down. My first thought was **** that hurts, followed swiftly by the notion that this was the beginning of something I did not want to face or think about. The first step being  waiting in A and E at the Norfolk and Norwich hospital with a suspected broken hip just another elderly person who had slipped and fallen at home. Indeed I had slipped and fallen while taking the nail varnish off my toes with my foot on the bath edge and on reflection it could actually have happened whether I was 40 or 60 plus.  Having decided that no matter how much it hurt I couldn’t stay there on the floor I hauled myself to my feet and made my way to lay on the bed through increasingly blue air.A few minutes later after taking stock and I  decided that while it hurt I had not broken my hip nor anything else. Relief.

General friendly advice seemed sure that “at my age” it would be sensible to get it checked out and so I found myself sitting in the relative peace and quiet of Cromer Minor Injuries unit. Accompanied in the waiting area by two more “fallers” of an age to need bumps and bruises  checked out and a young man with a sports injury, I began to wonder how I had slipped,if you’ll excuse the pun, seamlessly from the category of having had an accident to the slipped and fallen descriptor. Age. It’s an ageism. The script goes something like this.

“Take a seat “       “I’d rather stand it hurts to sit.”   “Oh bless you. A fall?”                              All delivered by a gentle lowered voice and a kind, benign smile reserved for babies, small children and the elderly.

To the sports injury.    “Now what have you been up to.” Big broad grin and a louder and altogether jollier tone of voice.   “We will get you sorted out and back on that football field soon.

Now I could kindly believe that this was a health worker consciously adjusting her responses to each individual who presents at her desk but I rather sense that there is something far less conscious at work.

” Take a seat in the waiting area please”

So I finally lower myself to a chair and look around at my other “fallers” and wonder what back stories we all have and how sadly we have now arrived at this waiting room with the resultant injuries of our trips, slips and falls. We are , of course ,taking this all stoically and with the required smiles and pleasantries to each other. We are not too bad, bit bruised and I understand why the elderly put up this front of being OK and not making a fuss. If we gave in to making a fuss and acknowledged everything that ached , creaked and didn’t work quite right we would be talking about it all day and never talk or think about anything else! So stoicism along with the aches , pains and now bruises becomes the order of the day. That way we can find space in our lives for  other things, funerals, outings, voluntary work, families, dogs,knitting and so on.  Already my conversations with my friends usually starts with who is dead, dying, ill or having their new hip before we get to the interesting stuff. We  are not quite old enough for the first category to be the predominate discussion but definitely old enough for the replacements updates.Perhaps its just a different kind of gossip but  I think I preferred the gossip that centered around whose doing what to whose partner that shouldn’t be, sexual goings on were much more exciting.

The gentleman with the painful shoulders’ wife gently asks him every few minutes if he is OK. Maybe they have been together since being teenage lovers, brought up their children, built a life between them and now enjoy grandchildren and the garden that they have kept beautifully for the past 50 years. They bought their house when the children were small and have lovingly cared for it all these years but maybe it is becoming too much and they have to face the inevitability of leaving all those memories and the garden and downsizing. That’s another word that comes into the aging vocabulary to avoid using shrinking, shrinkage or shrunk. Shrinkage of everything just about, the reduction of life and self in so many ways is the reality but we are downsizing when we leave our beloved family homes. Downsizing our lives is the truth.

I have had many lovers and many houses, made my home where ever I have landed at any one time, can they see this in me as I sit alone with my bruises. I have had a career that spans the 50 years of that garden’s life and has been as carefully nurtured and hopefully has given as much to the people who shared it with me. Can they see that too? Maybe the other faller a lady somewhat older than me but also alone with her bruise can see that in me. She has hurt her elbow. Slipped and fell on her front path she tells me. Her children told her that she should get it checked “at her age”. I guess her husband is dead and her home is a small immaculate cottage in a town that has been her life since childhood, married at the church she now attends every Sunday and where she helps with the flowers. Her elbow may curtail that for a while.

None of these people have been wanderers or travellers except for holidays but maybe the lad with the sports injury will make a football career and have a life full of adventures, excitement and many lovers too. It will be some long time before he succumbs to the language of the slippery slope into second childhood and sits with his thoughts, his memories and his bruises in minor injuries as part of the “has been cavalry”.

“Mrs Randall? This way please.”

“How did you fall?”

“Varnishing your toe nails?! Really at your age you must be more careful.”

 

Dylan Thomas

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Social work, child care and history of social work

Black bins bags? A symbol of how we view children in care

Black bags are for rubbish. I use black bags for storage sometimes and when I have moved house for the less accommodating or bits and pieces that are left over and I don’t know how to fit into the usual packing boxes. None of these images fit well with the symbolic attachment that is made with young people and children moving from one placement to another carrying their world in black bags. Recently there was a campaign on Twitter about stopping the use of black bags as an alternative to suitcases and boxes in moving young people in care to new accommodation. I was dismayed, perhaps that is an understatement. In the late 1970’s when I was  a newish social worker in Basildon I was part of a Who Cares group together with the rather wonderful Charlotte Lodge who had been part of the Ad Lib group in Leeds with Mike Stein . Ad Lib was a group that became the forerunner of the Who Cares Movement  which ran from 1975-78 and then became the National Association of Young  in Care. These were young people led rights groups and among many issues they identified for change was “the bin bag move”. Since 1999 A National Voice has been campaigning  on the same ticket. In the late 70’s the Basildon Who Cares made a short training video and one image that will stay with me was a lad going up the path of New Century Road Children’s Home with two black bin liners full of his belongings. It was staged but the script was written by the young people. We wanted it to stop then! So why is it still an issue??

It is,I fear, the tip of an iceberg . The iceberg that is how we feel about and therefore treat our children and young people in public care.For certain there have been improvements, order books are no longer used for purchasing clothing, overnight visits with friends are easier, reviews are marginally more child friendly, placement moves are improving slowly, there are far less large institutions and we are much better at detecting and dealing with abuse in the care system. But…  and it is a big but, there is so far to go and it will not be solved by inspectors making dictates or pressurising for more boxes to be ticked on time. Quantitative not qualitative data is not the way forward.Nor will it be helped by politicians passing new pieces of legislation and attempting to take control of every aspect of the profession  because it is about attitudes. The attitudes of both the general public and of professional staff  the latter who are ,of course, also members of the general public.  We are subject to the same societal norms, values and beliefs as everyone else and we bring them into our work. Much of how we behave towards these youngsters for whom the state is responsible still owes more to the Poor Law than to 21st century values. There continues to be an element of deserving and undeserving in judgments made, and I have heard far too many times carers and social workers talk about how “they should be grateful”. The often stated public view that “they get everything given them and are still not grateful”. Really!! They see the school trips paid for, the new trainers bought by foster carers and equate that somehow with the council tax they pay. Some will choose to measure these material purchases against what they can afford to buy for their own children. What price would they put on having their own caring and safe family?  In times of austerity these attitudes harden. They also harden in times of political chaos when we all feel that we want to protect that which is ours in the face of difficult times. So now is not a good time for those whose childhood depends on the public purse and the resources of the public care system. So when cash strapped councils are debating cutting rubbish collections to fortnightly to save money no doubt cuts to childcare budgets are on the same agenda.

So what is to be done to move this debate on again.

 

There are 70,440 children in public care in England according to government statistics( as at 31.3.16) and the figure is rising steadily  year on year. Many have a good experience of their care childhood but for so many both their childhood and their adulthood are damaged further by public and corporate parenting experience. Lives that are already damaged by  their experiences prior to the states intervention. This is, in the great scheme of things, a small number of children and young people and easily put to one side in a political numbers games. But everyone is a precious life and everyone will continue on to hopefully a productive adulthood as part of the wider community and as part of their own family. They should have a future and currently outcomes are not good, they provide a higher  proportion of the homeless, of the prison population , of those struggling with addictions, of those suffering mental ill health. The picture is very poor and yet we still consider that they should somehow because of having been rescued be grateful and industrious. History has shown us that systems designed to make the poor, vulnerable and disenfranchised   grateful and industrious have been singularly unsuccessful.

So we have to have a sea change in how we deal with this most vulnerable group of youngsters, quick political fixes do not work when attitudes are so embedded in our collective consciousness. We must challenge every time we hear views which are misinformed or misunderstood. We must look to the language we use to describe children in public care  and their families. Professionalization of our language patterns frequently both discredit and demean our children and their families. Think about the word contact for example. What is wrong with ” meeting up with Mum”, “visiting Dad this afternoon” or “going to see his Nan”. It is as sad for me to hear a child use the word contact for visit as it was to see the young man travel that path with his black bags. We must come out from under our professional cloak and learn to behave towards these children as we would our own, with general humanity, care and friendship. None of this means that we cannot continue to be boundaried, ethical professionals with a clear role and job in relation to  our clients and the community we serve. We must be their advocates , their protectors, their temporary parent. We must believe in them and fight against the system and our employers for them if that is what is needed. We must become politically aware and active. We must be their champions and act as though they were our own children. Nothing less will change their world and the public attitude toward the public care of children and young people. We can then lose those black bags for ever or perhaps just keep one for moving the duvet!

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Social work, child care and history of social work, Uncategorized

Transitions:Face up and jump…….

Hemingway said “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed”. I have been struggling for the past week or two to write anything. I have struggled to write the Corve Lane book or this blog. Several blogs have been started but none finished. I am beginning to understand why thanks to Mr Hemingway.  There are good, and bad, things about having been brought up in the psychodynamic tradition of social work. One is the understanding that a block in one area of your life is often related to something going on in another area of your inner world. Locate and deal with the real issue and things may come right. The anxiety manifesting itself may reduce and the block be removed. This creates a struggle for the individual in this case me. We are much better at dealing with his process in others as there is no personal emotional agenda to muddy the process. It is why social workers and therapists require good psychological support and supervision as any processing of our internal world is very complex. But that may be a topic for another day. Today I bleed a little. Blood letting is required. This will be a new experience for me and many who know me. Stay with me it will soon be over!

The irrational fear is that if I complete the book then that will be the end, of my career, of everything as I have previously known it thus creating a very scary space or even a vacuum. The real problem is that I need to revisit my past to establish whether or not I made good decisions, have any regrets, or indeed whether or not the productive period of my working life stands up to scrutiny. Not the judgement of others but by my own standards and to my satisfaction. I know that until I could do that, write this piece and begin the transition to the next phase of my life then everything else is pushed to one side.I knew when I left Lostwithiel temporarily that I needed to make a physical move to wake up my thinking, to reawaken my self to begin this work. To begin with this was simply a sense of what I needed, I was not clear about the next steps or how it would proceed.

What I have come to understand is that I have not just begun a major period of transition in my life but that I am suffering from the series of losses that comes with that transition. Transitions are continuous throughout our lives. Clearly some more major than others, puberty, marriage, parenthood, death of parents, leaving school or jobs, the list is very long. Some are sudden, unpredictable and have immediate life changing implications, some are of our own choosing, and some have unintended consequences. Frequently they cross over every aspect of our life, physical, emotional, financial, relationships, attitudes, abilities, interests or our place in the world. I respect the fact that many organisations and employers now provide pre retirement courses, and I know that I thought and planned many things I would do to take me through the transition. But each transition is unique and though there are many generalizations that apply there was so much I didn’t and couldn’t have predicted. There are two choices it seems when faced with life changing events the first is to do nothing, the second is to face it, create  the struggle and work towards an understanding that will help develop a new stage in your life. No brainer for me, so I have quietly been facing the struggle. I am beginning to emerge with a new understanding not just of myself but of the later stages of my life. I had to “run away” to do it and that may be a bit extreme for some but my sense that it would work for me was right. I have had to  abandon avoidance as a strategy.

For me the first understanding was to give myself permission to grieve for the losses that middle age and retirement bring and to understand them in the same way as any other serious loss in our lives. I remember the struggle I had when I realized that I had become the older generation in my family ,that I was effectively an orphan ,with no parents still living. There are layers of grief to this and it was a while before I got to the real issue for me.  The child in my adulthood was alone. I had to let go of the child at long last and was totally responsible for my adult self. This time I am letting go of my years of being at the height of my productive self , both as a woman and as a worker. I’m not going to list all the obvious changes in any detail, we can all recognize them. Those I have planned for and can deal with. The big and critical questions were for my inner self. I didn’t want to retire. Nothing to do with less money but because the space it would create for me would open me up to those issues . Had work simply been an avoidance of some sort? Had  my dedication to my work been  more self-serving than self-sacrificing? It had been my life. Cut me and I have social worker stamped through me.

As a woman I am childless, a subject no doubt of much speculation over the years, but strangely less so to my clients than others. It was a choice on my part nothing else. Here was a question to be revisited in the face of the menopause and all the delights that brings with it not the least in my case the loss of my sexual self. I’ll spare you the details. Not going that far! My personal and intimate relationships have been dodgy( but fun) to say the least, the long-standing one that would have persisted ending in a very unhappy situation. So what does all that say about the person who dedicated her life to the difficulties others face and to helping the vulnerable and to addressing their relationship issues. I have had to revisited my motivation in a deeply personal way that I have not had to do before.

It is worth every step of the struggle. This is the way forward for me. Not to deal with the obvious, yes money is tight and the bones don’t move as quickly as they did but  taking up marathons, all night clubbing, facelifts, tattoos, fast cars and all the other things that people do was not the option for me. It would be a superficial and empty gesture to my past life, to its pleasures, glories, happiness, successes and failures. Checking it out, revisiting decisions, examining the big questions in my individual existence, sifting through the mistakes , recognizing the losses was for me the way to move through this transition to a new understanding of myself. I will continue to work towards peace with myself as my life progresses. But I have removed the block. This needed to be written and acknowledged . I am still learning and working but in a very different way. I agree with George Burns ” Retirement at 65 is ridiculous. When I was 65 I still had pimples”change image 2

Back to the writing. Coming up . More lessons from the past. More comment on the state of social work and best of all some guest blogs from adults who have been in care offering their thoughts looking back at their lives.