A social work visit I’ll never forget

Heather Kent, winner of the Adult Social Worker of the Year award in 2016, reflects on one of her more memorable social work visits

By Heather Kent, winner of the Adult Social Worker of the Year award at the Social Worker of the Year Awards 2016

Until my recent retirement I had the good fortune to be employed as an adult social worker in beautiful rural Northumberland; England’s most sparsely populated county.

Travel times can be tough here. A two and a half hour round trip to the furthest service user – so preparation and good planning are absolutely key to a successful visit. Mobile coverage? Forget it. Good roads? Not really. Farm tracks, gates, animals, mud and snow.

Social Worker of the Year Awards 2017

The awards celebrate the achievements of individual social workers and social work teams practising in England, with 17 different categories across children’s and adults’ services. The entry deadline for this year’s event is 5pm on Friday 21 July. Visit the website for more information and to download an entry form.

On one memorable visit the drive was 45 minutes of road, then 30 minutes of track over moorland that quickly became impassable. Not one to be daunted, I walked (wellies are always in the boot), dodging the lively young cows in the field and climbing over stone walls.

I eventually arrived at my destination to find my service user had laid out a dainty tea service complete with plates of chocolate biscuits and cake. It brought to my mind the topic of one tutorial at university: ‘Do you accept a cup of tea when visiting?’ This time I certainly did.

It was, however, a challenging visit in other ways. The property was hazardous, unsafe and not entirely suitable for someone of advanced years with increasing health and mobility problems. There was a very old gas camping stove, leaking roof, crumbling outdoor stairs to the wood store for the open fire – the only source of heating – and animals to be cared for.

A whole range of internal and external hazards – and access was impassable to all but a four-wheel drive vehicle or the local postman who was brave enough to tackle the track.

‘Precious resources’

These were factual observations though, not value judgements. I recognised the importance for this person of remaining where they were; that this was their home and they were happy here. It shouldn’t be a challenge to support this but it often is when family and friends are understandably concerned and other professionals concentrate on the risks.

“It will be your fault if they fall down the stairs,” they said. Really? What happened to capacitated choice and self-determination? Juggling family expectations and the concerns of other professionals is challenging but it is a part of the social work role I really loved. It takes knowledge, determination and diplomacy to achieve, and those most precious resources – time and a supportive manager.

Identifying strengths was vital to planning solutions in this case and the resourceful individual had already solved many of their own problems: bulk shopping delivery from the local community store and butchers (10 miles away), large freezers to keep food in stock, and the help of the aforementioned postie to bring in a daily supply of logs and collect prescriptions.

Once a consensus for action had been achieved we – the service user, their family, and other key professionals – worked together to increase this supportive network. Emergency numbers were established, local help with laundry secured, options for alternative animal husbandry discussed and hand rails and improvements (a new stove!) installed wherever possible.

Contingency plans for bad weather and ill-health were also made, with a GP and nurse willing to make the journey in a four-wheel drive if necessary. Emergency services were made aware of the access issues and emergency accommodation was identified.

‘Respecting choice’

Was it a success? For a while. It gave that person another year or so of independent living and crucially, time for them to consider their next step. They were able to find new owners for their animals and to make plans to say goodbye to their old home. And, eventually, in their own time, move to be nearer family and start a new life in an ‘easier’ environment.

Was it sad? Maybe. But I think that all the people involved, including the service user, ultimately met this challenge with commitment and understanding. What I did was initiate the process and support it along the way, ensuring that the service user’s right to make an informed choice about where and how to live was respected. By ensuring that other professionals understood the legal aspects of this and that identified risks were minimised as far as possible, I helped to bring reluctant support into the plan, resulting in a more successful outcome. Job done!

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9 Responses to A social work visit I’ll never forget

  1. Christina June 20, 2017 at 1:25 pm #

    What a wonderful cheering story. I can well understand why Heather has won an award. An excellent example of why choice is so important for the service user.

    • Stuart June 20, 2017 at 4:34 pm #

      Absolutely agree, congratulations on your SWoTY award and thank you for all the work you’ve done that led to it – and for this nice piece of writing too!

      • Heather June 25, 2017 at 8:15 pm #

        Thankyou Stuart.

    • Heather June 20, 2017 at 4:53 pm #

      Thankyou Christina! Rural social work brings its rewards – and challenges!

  2. Lesley June 21, 2017 at 10:53 pm #

    Beautiful account showing real social work at its best!

    • Heather June 25, 2017 at 8:13 pm #

      Thankyou Lesley for your lovely comment. I can recommend Northumberlqnd as a place to live and work!

  3. Julie June 23, 2017 at 9:15 pm #

    Congratulations winning the SWoTY, well deserved and a great approach of being risk sensitive and not risk adverse. It’s always a difficult balancing act but you seem to have helped the service user to have some control in their latter years. Working in County Durham I appreciate the difficulties in adverse weather, some journeys are amazing and scenery can be beautiful, but it can be difficult in the winter at times. I think that I will take your example and pop some Welles in my boot. Congrats again.

    • Heather June 25, 2017 at 8:21 pm #

      Absolutely you must! Wellies and warm clothes , snow tyres and a camera for the beautiful scenery. That plus the wonderful people we meet make just about make up for the office work! I am a farmer’s daughter so I knew I would always work in a rural area – but it is so hard to get services and there is so much reliance on good neighbours and family. Thank goodness for direct payments!

  4. Martin Porter June 27, 2017 at 2:06 pm #

    What a great piece of work.

    The main point being not that they eventually moved out of the farm – that was probably inevitable – but that they did so at the time and in the manner of their choosing.