Tuesday, 11 March 2014

The C word: care

Posted by Jennifer Remnant & Libby Morrison

I am a carer. I currently work on a ‘casual’ (another ‘c’ word!) basis for a mental health company. Prior to that, I worked chiefly with people with learning disabilities, and also spent some time as a PA to teenage twins with a physical impairment. Being a carer is hard work. Hard, underpaid, undervalued work. It reflects the emptiness of the rhetoric that society (and academia?) uses for service users, and the workforce that supports them. Being a support worker/care assistant/health assistant/personal assistant/care worker can be emotionally and physically draining. It involves the basics; knowledge of food preparation, hygiene and cleanliness and personal care in predominantly tiring shift patterns. If you’re going to attempt to work through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (which I try my best to do – though it’s a mostly ideological attempt) you need to know how to keep another human being safe, how to feed them and how to keep them clean, whilst also offering service users opportunities to make real choices and where possible maintain personal autonomy, eg; ‘Would you like a piece of cake or an apple?’; ‘Would you like to be obese?’. Carers earning as little as the minimum wage are expected to make difficult and often quick decisions to support service users (often with complex needs) – when trying to balance health and safety considerations against individual choice and autonomy. 

One service user that I used to work with many years ago in a mental health service particularly tested the team I worked in; a typical exchange would be something like this:

Me - ‘Can you go to the toilet please?’

SU - ‘the toilet?’

Me - ‘yep, the toilet’

SU - ‘what for?

Me - ‘to see if you need to go’ (this person is regularly doubly incontinent )

SU - ‘what happens next?’

Me - ‘lets just take this one step at a time’

SU - ‘will I get stuck?

Me - ‘no you won’t get stuck, you didn’t get stuck last time, or the time before’

SU - ‘where do I need to go?’

Me - ‘the bathroom’,

SU - ‘the bathroom?’ (like that is the strangest thing he’s ever heard)...etc.

About 45 mins to an hour after first asking him, he might be on the toilet, he might not. He might go he might not. He might say he can’t, and then when you explained that you had other residents you needed to see and returned to the office, he might follow you there and urinate and defecate there in front of you. Or in the kitchen. Or in the corridor. Which despite not knowing either way, felt like a dirty protest – though in his defence, from macro to micro levels, there was a lot to protest about. 

He moved very slowly a lot of the time, but could also be impressively speedy. His level of understanding was very good, and so was his memory. He liked to talk about sexual violence, especially if it was a locally publicised crime, because then he could discuss with female workers the safety of their chosen route home. He worried about whether staff liked him, and asked them directly. He asked staff if they were his friends. He sometimes called the emergency services in the middle of the night because he woke up terrified that he was going to die. He has been exploited financially throughout his adult life. He was unique. He was witty, funny and thoughtful.

It was harder still to work with this service user when I found out that he regularly found the energy and time to hop into a taxi, travel down to a local brothel and pay for the company of young women. He had a preference for eastern European women. In a painful irony, many of the women service users I work with, especially with the current welfare reforms, have, or do, prostitute themselves.

This man was only one of ten residents in the mental health service he lived in. He started with 24 hour support, but as the money drip-dripped away, so did his support. The team that work with him have not had a pay rise in 4 years because they are not NHS staff.

I think for this example in particular the welfare state and its provisions are an interesting fit. I don’t even know how the staff that work with him now are going to begin to approach the ESA50 form when it comes, or the distress it will cause. In the last 6 months (in a different support role) I have supported various people to fill out ESA50 forms, and despite being as sure as I could be that all would go straight into the support group, the wait was unbearable. All of them smoked, and all of them increased their cigarette intake at this time. A number had to go to the doctors and have their anti-anxiety medication increased and those that drank reported drinking more.

Doing this job highlights the stark difference between the rhetoric at the top and the reality at the bottom. Nothing is packaged up smartly and neatly like some legislation would suggest that it is.

It also forces me to ask big ideological questions about what I’m even doing in a university – and what I want ‘impact’ to mean in terms of research.


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