By Madeline Cooper Ueki
Voting is not just about having your say every few years; it represents the right to participate in society and make a mark on the world around you. Involvement in decision making about this, and other issues which affect your life, is something most people take for granted. Being able to share with others what really matters to you and having these things implemented through your own choices, is key to having a good quality of life.
When someone moves into a care home they often experience a separation from their old lives. We have heard during our work with people supporting those with dementia to develop circles of support that this can be even more likely to happen to someone with dementia. Assumptions are made that they are no longer interested in the political world and who should run the country.There can even be misconceptions about their ability to make decisions.
Supporting the right to vote
We need to ensure that older people with high support needs living in residential care, and those who care for them, understand they have a right to vote. The Orders of St John Care Trust (OSJCT), a provider with 76 care homes, recognised this issue and, in partnership with National Development Team for Inclusion (NDTi), created a programme to encourage their residents to stay involved in politics and vote in the forthcoming election. Comic Relief provided funding in support of the campaign.
“We think it’s really important that older people living in care homes have a voice and get to choose who represents them,” said Sara Livadeas, strategy director of OSJCT. “We hope that the skills gained by the staff, learning how to really empower the residents, will have a positive and lasting effect on the care we deliver.”
OSJCT recruited staff, residents, volunteers and family members as voting champions to actively encourage participation. These groups, across each of the four counties in which OSJCT operates, have been supported by NDTi with a programme of learning and development designed to help them engage residents about why and how they can participate, both democratically and beyond.
Voting champions have come together regularly to learn new skills, and share and reflect on their experiences in a facilitated supportive environment. We have worked with them to explore how people are enabled to share what matters, get involved in decisions big and small in their home and engage in the wider community around them.
People’s choices, including democratic ones, are driven by things personal to them: experiences, values, beliefs and preferences. So, developing champions’ skills in how person-centred approaches can be used to really listen to people has been a key aim of the programme.
Early results are encouraging. Several homes have hosted visits from local parliamentary candidates and residents have been interviewed by local media, demonstrating how their voices really can be heard and valued. People are also working on new ways for residents to come out of their homes and take part in their local community activities. For example, one home has begun to support residents to take part in coffee mornings in a local cafe, where political candidates have been giving talks.
Internal and external misconceptions about the ability of those in care to make decisions and play their part in our communities have been challenged as residents have enjoyed discussion and debate. One workshop focused on learning about the right to vote for those with issues affecting mental capacity. Champions worked through ideas on how people could be supported to make their decisions at times which suited them, with a range of approaches to communication to help people understand the options available. One voting champion relayed that other staff and people’s family members had said, ‘surely they won’t be interested in voting’ of most of the residents, only to find when she went around and asked everyone that nearly everyone did vote.
Another woman with dementia, who had become increasingly disengaged from what was going on around her, lit up when the voting champion in her home asked if she had ever voted. They went on to have a conversation about what mattered to her and how that might help her decide who she wanted to vote for this time. It was the most engaged and interactive she’d been in months, said staff.
Care home residents who are often in danger of being written off by society need to have a voice in our democracy and make their mark. This programme demonstrates that, given the right support, they are absolutely up for it!
Madeline Cooper Ueki is programme lead, ageing and older people, at the National Development Team for Inclusion