By Elizabeth Rylan
Social work is a profession which demands much from its practitioners. From the start of our learning we are confronted with descriptions of long hours, high workloads and overly bureaucratic processes within a context of ever shrinking resources and increasing job insecurity. To survive, let alone to flourish, we are encouraged to develop our resilience as a way of balancing the need to be tough in order to survive, with remaining human and empathic in order to be effective.
Yet social work is also a profession which demands much from the clients with whom we work. The process of assessment can mean that an individual has to reveal highly intimate details of their private routines and relationships in order to secure further support or services. These disclosures are often made at an emotionally heightened time when they and their network are experiencing feelings of loss, vulnerability, anger or bewilderment.
Much has been made of a strengths-based approach to assessment and linking to the concept of wellbeing. But what about resilience, and considering how this relates to clients, not just practitioners?
Creativity and tenacity
For someone to come into contact with social care services for the first time means that they have survived whatever life experiences have come their way up until now. In my practice working with adults, it isn’t unusual for a client to only become known to adult social care at a time of crisis. Perhaps one person in a marriage that has lasted more than 65 years becomes physically unwell which then unmasks the cognitive difficulties being experienced by the other, revealing just how much one was supporting the other. Somehow they had been managing, even if only just, and this tells us a lot about their creativity and their tenacity.
We might meet someone for the first time when they are 75, 85, 95 or older. It is important to remember that they are likely to have a wealth of life experience to draw on by the time we become involved. When working with older adults there may be obvious markers that they have come through adversity, such as being a war veteran. But what about other aspects? Over the course of many decades, that person is highly likely to have experienced joy and sorrow in all their complexities – births, deaths, betrayals and triumphs.
Or how about younger adults who have progressed through the care system? They may have experienced or been witness to abuse or neglect and experienced unsettlement and setbacks from a young age. And yet they are still standing. Therefore, while the situation the person is now experiencing may be unprecedented, the tumult of emotions is likely to be familiar.
Potential for change
Perhaps they have self-referred or perhaps someone else initiated involvement on their behalf. Either way, this demonstrates that someone can see the potential for change and is taking action towards that aim. Or perhaps they didn’t or couldn’t ask for support and they have no personal network to speak up on their behalf. If so, then the fact that the social care safety net has caught someone experiencing such isolation means that society is striving for that change for them. This provides a strong base from which to work.
Developing resilience in clients is a way of supporting them to live their lives in the manner most appropriate to them and to foster a self-sustaining network with the means to adapt as needed. Resilience can be cultivated by acknowledging a person’s situation and recognising the issues at hand. This has to be balanced to avoid the person feeling overwhelmed or that they are being defined by a seemingly endless list of difficulties (even if our assessments may encourage us to list a client’s disabilities and health conditions in order of most impact!).
Managed appropriately, this validation can substantiate the challenges that they have been through and evidence the practitioner’s sincerity.
The courage to simply sit with the person at a time of pain and uncertainty cannot be underestimated.
Such an approach can often lead to the client coming to their own realisation of how strong they have been to overcome past adversities, and that their current situation is not due to any ‘failure’ on their part but rather due to life being beyond their or anyone else’s control.
Recognising the past can facilitate greater understanding of the future. It is important for practitioners to try and prepare people for when life may next send a blow their way and consider how they may respond. This can normalise the fact that a crisis may well again occur and that if so, it is not a sign of an error that has been made, but due to complex and interacting factors. The ‘system’ is not perfect and not all eventualities can be predicted, pre-empted or prevented. However, planning for what can be foreseen can then free up the person and their network to be better able to respond when the unexpected does occur.
Product of our past
While I was trying to develop my own understanding of resilience, I came across a model called the resilience matrix (Daniel, B and Wassell, S (2002) Assessing and Promoting Resilience in Vulnerable Children). This provides a framework for understanding the interaction between vulnerability, adversity, resilience and the environment and it seems to often be applied to childcare settings to aid the process of assessment. Yet in my view, the concept that we are all a product of our past and the context in which we find ourselves can be applied in a wider sense. Perhaps it is time for adult social care researchers and practitioners to consider how we can learn from children’s services counterparts to re-frame such models to guide our interventions. I for one will be interested to see if theories such as this can enhance my practice and inform my work with clients.
Elizabeth Rylan is a pseudonym for an adults’ social worker based in a local authority in the south of England