Love

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“It’s a brave professional who talks about love and social care in the same sentence…”

Alex Fox [1]

We don’t talk much about love in social care. We focus instead on the shadows. Safeguarding. Abuse. Neglect. Risk. Threat. Danger. And while we talk an awful lot about needs, love is rarely on the list.

While Rob Mitchell describes love as “the essence of humanity”, he acknowledges it’s “something that health and social care isn’t comfortable with” [2]. And Alex Fox refers to the “abhorrence of love” in our invisible asylum of public services [3].

So why is this? If the core purpose of our sector is to help people to achieve the things that matter most to them in their life, how can it be that we have to be brave to talk about love?

Love in all its guises

When I refer to love, I mean love in all its guises.

The intimate physical passionate aching shaking constantly on your mind dizzying desiring adoring anticipating sleepless soaring non-stop smiling type of love.

The affectionate, gentle, easy, settled, content, held, familiar, familial, belonging type of love.

The ‘I’ve got you’, on your side, looking out for you, dropping everything for you, challenging and enthusing and encouraging and admiring and accepting and laughing and crying and just being there when you need them friends type of love.

The hopeful, hopeless, maybe, maybe not, one-sided, lonely, rejected, foolish, unrequited type of love.

The lost gone broken sobbing desperate empty distraught raw grieving type of love.

And the escaping, returning, just being, compassionate, listening to and connecting with and believing in and respecting and accepting yourself and who you are and who you want to be type of (self) love.

I also mean love in the sense of ‘what matters to us’ as well as ‘who matters’. The pleasures and joys and aspirations and moments and sensations of the things we love seeing and doing and anticipating and reflecting on and being part of and fighting for. Our passions and desires and hobbies and interests. The causes we campaign for. The places we feel we belong. And the pleasure in the every day. For me, that’s waking up to blue sky and sunshine. Swimming underwater. Seeing magnolia trees blossoming in spring. Hearing my children giggling. Feeling their small hands in mine. Cooking colourful food. Creating. Writing. Connecting. Hugs and being held.

I started thinking about this blog as I made beetroot soup recently. As I thought about all the different types of love, I also noticed how content I felt in that moment. My pleasure in the chopping and stirring and blending and seasoning. The silky smooth texture of the soup. The anticipation of a warming, nourishing lunch. The stunning cerise colour against the white of my bowl. In contrast, when my daughter saw my soup, her immediate response was ‘urgh, gross’. Reverie shattered! Fair enough. People take pleasure from different things. We all have our own public, and private, passions. We all love differently. That’s one of the fabulous things that makes us all unique individuals. But one of the core things we all share is our desire – and our human right – to love and to be loved.

All you need is love

“All you need is love
– A girl has got to eat
All you need is love
– Or she’ll end up on the streets
All you need is love”

Elephant song medley [4]

“The main thing is love. Food, shelter and warmth are important but it’s lack of someone caring that leads to despair.”

Mrs W [5]

For all our talk of needs in social care, love rarely features on the list. We’re stuck at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy – focusing on people’s basic requirements for food and drink, clothing, shelter and safety but paying little or no attention to people’s needs for love and belonging, or to their hopes and dreams. If we do consider relationships at all, it’s often in the context of the people who are ‘willing and able’ to provide care – so we don’t have to.

Despite the Care Act shift to meeting needs and promoting wellbeing, our focus is still very much on providing services to help people to survive. But what use is surviving without the passion and desire and joy that gives us all a reason for living and a feeling of being truly alive? OK, so maybe love isn’t all you need, but just maybe it is the main thing you need.

Instead of focusing on love in social care, we focus on the shadows.

Safeguarding. Abuse. Neglect. Risk. Threat. Danger.

But our pathways and manuals and regulations and procedures don’t keep people safe. Our institutions don’t keep people safe. People keep people safe. Kindness and compassion and connections and friendship and love keep people safe.

We talk about appropriate professional boundaries and the dangers of getting too close. But what about the consequences of our distance?

What about the dangers of not having honest conversations about relationships and sex and sexual identity and sexual health?

What about the risks of a life without love?

“Why is it more important that someone gets training to teach them how to use a bus than having someone to hold hands with on their bus journey?”

Anna Marriott [6]

We don’t have (make) time for love

Conversations about love and relationships take a whole lot of time, and a whole lot of trust. “Intimate and private lives cannot be explored in a single visit, especially not one where the agenda is pre-determined by a script to be followed as laid out in a large assessment document”. [7]

Support for people to find love takes time too. Relationships don’t come in ‘care packages’. There’s no referral form for romance. There’s no brokerage team for love. But when the clock is ticking and our waiting lists are lengthening, we don’t have time to explore all the options, so we focus instead on the services we know, the support we can buy. But often these services don’t make space for friendships to develop or love to flourish or ambitions to be realised either. They have rules and ratios. Single beds and curfews. Constant supervision.

Yet while we claim to be too busy for love, we spend plenty of time fighting. Indeed, the statutory social care sector is more akin to war than love. We work on the ‘front-line’. We have ‘duty’ teams. People fight for support. We ‘combat’ loneliness and work with people who are ‘battling’ dementia or ‘fighting’ cancer. We defend our decisions and blame families for being difficult. We argue with other teams and services, reluctant to take on more ‘cases’ – more ‘referrals’ to add to our lists. We fight with ‘health’ over the classification of needs and who should or shouldn’t foot the bill. We ‘manage demand’. We’re driven by targets. And we defend our increasingly over-stretched budgets.

Our sector is a battlefield. ‘We’ fight ‘them’.

And our language is often cold, passive and devoid of love. The language of an enemy.

In our emails we refer to people as numbers and cases and referrals. We attach deficit-based labels through categories we select on our assessment forms. We pepper our ‘care’ records with stock phrases that dehumanise and blame. We write letters full of jargon that distances and excludes.

We describe family and friends as ‘carers’, ‘next of kin’, ‘representatives’, ‘appropriate individuals’. There’s no category for ‘lover’. There’s no box to tick for ‘soulmate’.

Our IT systems are designed around tasks and transactions and workflows and processes, and filled with commands, including my particular (least) favourite: ‘Please select a user or team to deal with this case’.

We have comprehensive safeguarding procedures and extensive risk assessments, but no guidance on romance. No policies on love.

(Legislative) acts of love

“Relationships need to be tended and nurtured – we don’t even have the language for this type of activity in our public policy…”

Hilary Cottam [8]

Any reference to love in the legislation or literature is often implicit. The Care Act refers to ‘emotional wellbeing’ and ‘domestic, family and personal relationships’. The Human Rights Act includes the right to respect for private and family life, and the right to marry and start a family. The Mental Capacity Act, under the heading “family relationships etc”, refers to marriage, civil partnership, sexual relations and divorce, but in terms of consent, not love. The Care Quality Commission has guidance on relationships and sexuality in adult social care services – but the document doesn’t mention love.

In response to an observation that “There’s no romance or sex in Making it Real,” TLAP’s Kate Sibthorp acknowledges “it’s not immediately obvious… however, it’s all there if you look more closely” [9]. And it is. But maybe instead of all these implied, veiled, indirect references, we need to start embedding love much more blatantly at the heart of why we do what we do.

Embracing love

“It is people’s human right to have a relationship. It shouldn’t be a ‘nice to have’, but something that adds value to people’s lives. We are social animals; if you don’t see someone in that way, then you don’t see them as human.”

Claire Bates [10]

“Love, a wonderful yet often painful experience, can be the avoided discussion, the perceived risk, or the thing we forget is central to a person’s life. As social workers we need to embrace the fact that love has such a significant impact on everyone’s lives and wellbeing. We should respect its influence in the plans we make, and we must understand its power in decisions made by others which concern us. Love is complex, it is real, and we should acknowledge and embrace it in our practice.”

Fran Leddra and Mark Harvey [11]

It seems to me that if you believe in love, and value love, and trust in love, you make time for love, and you fight for love. So is the stark reality that we’ve distanced and othered ‘our service users’ to such an extent that we don’t see them as human beings with human desires? Have we stepped so far into the ‘system’ that we’ve forgotten our own passion for social justice and equality and human rights? Closed down our own humanity? Forgotten about love?

We offer people seeking support a service, when often what they want more than anything is a relationship. Families and friends looking for support for the people they love often face hostility and blame. Social workers with a passion for people are swallowed up in a system that requires them to screen and assess and judge and process and move on.

And yet, in the voluntary organisations and community groups and social networks ‘out there’, beyond the red tape and red lines of the statutory social care system and its standard service solutions, there’s a whole lot of love and a whole lot of support for love to thrive.

So how do we join the dots? If we’re serious about shifting our focus from transactions to relationships, and supporting people to get a life not a service, what do we need to do to open our doors and let love in?

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[1] Social work chief talks about Shared Lives, Alex Fox, Escaping the invisible asylum blog, 6 December 2010

[2] For the Valentines I never knew, Rob Mitchell, Last Quango In Halifax blog, 10 February 2018

[3] A new health and care system, Alex Fox, 2018

[4] Elephant Song Medley, Moulin Rouge

[5] Quoted in A new health and care system, Alex Fox, 2018

[6] Supporting people with learning disabilities to have positive sexual relationships, Anna Marriott, RiPfA, 17 June 2019

[7] Social work, cats and rocket science, Elaine James, Rob Mitchell and Hannah Morgan, 2019

[8] Radical help, Hilary Cottam, 2018

[9] What does Making it Real have to say about Valentine’s Day? Kate Sibthorp, Think Local Act Personal, 8 February 2019

[10] Quoted in ‘It’s a human right’: the campaign for learning disabled people’s love lives, Saba Salman, The Guardian, 30 October 2019

[11] Shared endeavour, values in common and a passion for practice, Fran Leddra and Mark Harvey, Social work with adults blog, Department of Health and Social Care, 4 October 2019

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