Times of difficulty can offer opportunity to restore compassion to social care

Tue, May 22, 2012, 01:00

RITE & REASON:WE ARE in a crisis of care. This is affecting not just professional social carers but everyone.

Social care practice in Ireland is reeling from the reality exposed by recent reports into the quality of our childcare, the care of the elderly and how we treat our prisoners, asylum seekers, mentally distressed and physically disabled.

In addition, the loss of essential resources is undermining much- needed services. There are also the pernicious effects of “managerialism”, with its often crude focus on demonstrable performance targets.

However, far more broadly than that, we have a crisis of care manifested in growing social inequality, deepening global poverty and worsening ecological decline.

Why is this happening and what should we do? The beginning of an answer might lie in recognising that we have been living out of an incredibly narrow conception of what it is to be human. We have come to believe the socially constructed myth that we are only rational self- interested actors concerned with maximising our own personal wellbeing.

In fact, care and compassion are central to our humanity. There could not be any human social world without these fundamental features. This is manifested continually and is made particularly apparent when we are faced with human vulnerability and need.

We cannot but respond to the suffering of another. Crises, therefore, such as the one we are in, may provide us with the opportunity to lay aside foolish myths and reconnect with deeper realities. Part of this involves recovering this more hopeful vision of ourselves as beings orientated towards mutual care and support.

In response to these overlapping crises, we urgently need a revitalised theory of social care. This would include placing humanisation as the goal of care, making that social care a project for all of us, not just for a cohort of professionals. Social care practice, to be comprehensive, needs to include both the interpersonal and the socio- political dimensions of the person. In short, for care to be effective, it involves personal and political transformation.

At the interpersonal level we need to recognise that each of us is interchangeably a care-giver and a care-receiver. This allows us to recognise our shared vulnerabilities and needs.

At the political level, we need to recover our democratic dreams of social equality, freedom and inclusion for all, not apologise for these humanistic values. The world is always constructed, so let us construct it in favour of our shared humanity.

How can we do all this? One way is through centralising a practice of dialogue in our caring and social-political institutions.

We need to reorient our institutions towards authentic dialogue with those affected by issues – whether they be children in need, the elderly in nursing homes, the mentally distressed, people in communities and so on.

A dialogic practice rests on the assumption that those who are affected by issues are most often the best judges of how to address those issues. So, let us give to those people, in each of their settings, the power to define and solve their own problems. We need to regain our democratic belief that people can be trusted to make the right decision.

In dialogic practice, problems are turned into questions (what is it we need to do in order to . . .?) and questions are turned into dialogue in which professionals and those with resources become part of the collective and genuine search for solutions

Does this sound too simple? Perhaps, but amazingly it works, perhaps because it is so accessible.

As Finnish psychologist Jaakko Seikkula says: “It is so simple that we cannot believe that the healing element of any practice is simply to be heard, to have response, and that when the response is given and received, our therapeutic work is fulfilled.”

It requires time, honesty and the willingness to enter into a meaningful, open engagement with others where no one is the pre-selected “expert”.

Mark Garavan co-ordinates applied social studies at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology and is author of Compassionate Activism: An Exploration of Integral Social Care

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