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
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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.
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.
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!