Joining the dots… letting love (back) in to social care

“We need to reclaim the concept of love, not as an abstract, all embracing, fantasy but as a set of ethics, principles, values and behaviours. A love that is justice in action…”

Bell Hooks [1]

As I suggested in my previous blog, we’ve spent so long focusing on the shadows of social care that we seem to have forgotten about love. But love has to be a fundamental part of our future social care world. If we’re serious about shifting our focus from transactions to relationships, and supporting people to get a life not a service, we must make time for love, and create space for love, and support love to thrive.

So how do we join the dots? What do we need to do to open our doors and let love in?

Here are a few of my suggestions…

1. Stop thinking ‘them’ and start seeing ‘us’

This is fundamental. Until we can truly, hand-on-heart acknowledge that all the people we are working with in social care are actually people, love just ain’t gonna get a foot in the door. Because in order to recognise that someone has human desires and human passions and human needs – not to mention human rights – we have to start by identifying them as a human being. A person – not a service user or a case or a referral or a bed number or a patient or a respite or an LD.

This should not have to be the first point on my list. But sadly, it is.

Social care is not about ‘them’. It’s about you. It’s about me. It’s about all of us.

2. Stop processing people

Recognising that we’re working with humans is a good place to start, but we also need to remember that we are human too.

We have to stop acting like robots processing widgets in a factory. Quit being the baggage handlers carrying cases on and off our conveyor belts.

There’s no room for personality or individuality or creativity on assembly lines (and little in our current social care ‘system’). Parts (people) are directed down predetermined routes (pathways). If they don’t pass the checks (assessments/eligibility determinations) they’re thrown out (turned away). If they do, they continue down the line (journey) to be assembled (fixed). Labels (yup – loads of those) are applied. The product (outcome) is always the same.

We can’t manufacture love.

3. Stop ticking boxes

We view our work in tasks. Screen. Signpost. Assess. Refer. Record. Purchase. Review. Our jobs are defined by the forms we fill in and the procedures we follow. Our achievements are measured in the tasks we complete.

But the people we’re working with don’t want an assessment or a review. They want someone to listen to them, see who they are, believe in them, understand what matters, and be useful.

Completing a form, adding someone to a waiting list, ‘signposting’ or making a referral may seem like job done, but whose ‘outcomes’ are we really achieving?

We need to stop reaching for props and hiding behind our paperwork and our IT systems.

(If you need convincing on this one, just listen to the amazing Charde Pinnock talking about her experience of the care system).

4. Stop seeing services as solutions

Social care should be about connections. Relationships. Lives, not services. Services may keep us alive and rescue us in an emergency, but it’s human connections that give us a reason to live, and kindness and compassion that supports us to thrive.

We need to invest as much time as we possibly can in valuing and building and maintaining relationships.

5. Be curious

We have to be less furious and more curious. Listen to and understand the experiences and the perspectives and the motivations of all the people we’re working with. Build bridges instead of barriers. Trust each other. Believe in ourselves.

We have to stop responding to labels and making assumptions based on diagnoses. Move beyond managing risks to exploring possibilities, identifying capabilities, and supporting aspirations, desires and dreams to flourish.

We have to recognise others’ strengths, and acknowledge our own vulnerabilities.

We need to get to know our communities, extend our networks, spread our wings. Keep exploring and reflecting. Discussing and debating. And never stop learning.

6. Be brave

We also need to be brave. Have those tricky conversations. Challenge – constructively. Question everything. Be honest. Tell the truth. Stay, instead of walking away.

7. Work with

We need to stop designing communities in council offices. Stop introducing initiatives devised by consultants which are either adopted reluctantly or cynically ignored. Stop imposing changes explicitly or implicitly designed to ‘manage demand’ or reduce costs.

We have to stop believing that we know best, and that we have the authority to determine what’s best. We need to rebalance the scales, decentralise decisions and redistribute the power. Work with individuals and families and communities, listen hard, acknowledge their expertise, and invest in their creativity and their solutions without imposing our bureaucracy and our rules.

8. Change our language

Ok so this one had to be on my list.. but I genuinely do believe we have to change the way we communicate with and about people if we’re serious about letting love in. We have to stop distancing and dehumanising and excluding and blaming people through the words and phrases and jargon and acronyms we use. As well as talking about love, we need to talk with love.

9. Tell a different story

People love the NHS, but who loves social care? Who even really knows what social care is? There’s a widely held view that the sector is in crisis, a ‘ticking time bomb’ about to explode. This fatalistic framing has led successive governments to conclude that the problem is too big to solve, and that long-term change is impossible. As a result, with a few notable exceptions, most politicians seem to have decided it’s better just to keep quiet and hope the problem goes away. And who wants to invest in or work in, never mind receive support from, a sector deemed to be on the brink of collapse, associated more with failure and abuse than love?

We have to keep sharing the glimpses of our better, brighter social care future. Keep flipping the narrative. Keep telling a different story, with love firmly centred at its heart.

10. Act with love

Love is complicated. Relationships are messy. Connections take time. A relational approach does not fit easily within our current linear, process driven system. But you know what, we are the system. And we can be the change.

Little gestures, thoughtful words and small acts of kindness don’t go unnoticed. There’s a ripple effect. In the same way that smiles are contagious, and applause spreads through a crowd, acts of love grow and multiply.

And so that’s how we join the dots. Not by ticking the right boxes, clicking ‘submit form’ and moving on, but through our conversations, our relationships and our connections. Our acts of love. And gradually each dot is linked, and the bonds get stronger, and the network grows, and the gaps in between start to disappear. Word gets round, different stories get told, innovation spreads, people join in, and slowly but surely, love finds a way.

“So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you”.

L. R. Knost


[1] Quoted in Love in action: a force for social justice, Sophia Parker, 5 December 2019

If you connect the dots.. image saved from Twitter – original source unknown.

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