Rebuilding communities and rebuilding social care are deeply linked challenges

This article appeared on the Social Care Institute for Excellence website on 25 May here. (I’m a SCIE Trustee.)

The focus of the first weeks of the crisis was on sustaining hospitals. It was a difficult, complex but clear challenge and it was met. As it became clearer that the virus had swiftly found social care’s most vulnerable services and was sweeping through people living in care homes in particular, politicians and planners have tried to bring into focus the much more fractured picture of social care services, which range from large nursing homes, through community support services and homecare, to individuals organising their own teams of Personal Assistants. We found out what we were good at: building huge hospitals in a matter of days is an incredible achievement. And what we are not good at: identifying where deeply entrenched inequalities in our communities will meet inequalities in our public services and create human tragedies.

There was a widely-shared photograph of the head doctor at the London Nightingale Hospital waiting for his first patient at a lighted door in a vast metal shutter. It’s a heroic image. Of course, the Nightingales, fortunately, remained almost unused as the daunting acute care challenge was largely met. There are few images of the thousands of people who died unnoticed in care homes, much less those isolated at home who were visited by untested and poorly equipped social care workers. It is hard to take a picture of the vast number of small, spontaneous acts of kindness that have happened within Mutual Aid and other grassroots community groups, and we may never know their contribution to keeping people alive and hopeful.

There is already talk of big, structural change post COVID-19. It will be tempting to do what we were good at during the peak of the crisis, but what we need in the next phase and beyond is unlikely to revolve around easily-defined service delivery challenges which can be achieved by a small group of heroes.

Support people need in the place where they live

As much as we will need our hospitals and medical facilities to recover and thrive, we will need a wider support system that enables people to live safely and well at home. That is where the safety and wellbeing of older and disabled people has always been found, and the current crisis has just brought home how important it is for people to be able to get the support they need – formal and informal – in the place where they live. For many people facing an extended period of isolation and the risks that will bring to their mental health, the role of friends, neighbours and – socially distanced – family will feel increasingly important.

The virus has brutally exposed many of the weaknesses in our social care system. But it has also highlighted an abundance of caring within our communities. We have a stronger desire to help each other than we realised: three quarters of a million people volunteered to help the NHS and social care before the programme had to be paused while the system tried to catch up. We have more creativity than we knew: people and organisations finding a million ways to offer their help, knowledge or skills to others, often for free. What we’ve found does not, of course, begin to balance out the devastating impact of the things our services lack, let alone the people we have lost.

Both formal and informal needed

And those good things are no more evenly distributed than the deaths and the shortages, exacerbating already deep-rooted inequalities. But given how difficult the coming months (and years) will be, we must make everything we can of what we’ve found, and what people have offered to give.

Social care is rooted in an attempt to bring together the formal and the informal: the social as well as the care. We know that people will not live safely and well where one or both are absent, or cannot work together: the large impersonal institution where there is support but community is kept at arm’s length; the isolated home where an individual endures hours without human contact.

So, we need a renewed drive towards living at home, or where that is not possible, a place which feels small and personal enough to feel like home. We can no longer tolerate people of any age living long-term in big, impersonal institutions. We must see the connections which people are making with each other, in all of their humanity, diversity and messiness, as being as crucial to the next phase as the smoothly-running hospital was to the first. And if we are to see people stepping forward to connect with people who use or live in support services, they will need to be able to feel a shared sense of ownership of those services: community as a mode of ownership, not just community as a ‘setting’. Put bluntly, few people want to volunteer for a large profit-making business owned somewhere offshore. If we want people to continue to step up, connect and be generous, they must be offered a greater sense of ownership and real relationships in return.

Look to the community

Neighbourhood level care organisations have already shown they can reach tens of thousands, like the famous Dutch Buurtzorg dementia support service with its self-managing community teams, or Shared Lives which reaches 14,000 disabled and older people through a family-based support model which behaves like a franchise in every way except for the fact that no one owns it, nor profits from it. We have seen these community-rooted organisations proving adaptable in the face of COVID-19, using online technology to create and sustain connections which are traditionally carried out face-to-face. The Shared Lives sector is seeking investment in an unprecedented modernisation of its recruitment and matching processes to ensure they can carry on during lockdown, and that the home-based support model can be a much bigger part of a pandemic-proof and sustainable future.

The crisis is still peaking and the bleakest news from the social care sector is yet to come out, as we start to understand the scale of what has happened, but not yet been counted. Many smaller provider organisations are already staring at bankruptcy. But we cannot wait until the crisis has passed to start building the future. We must start now.

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