Generally, I tend not to watch anything that might be deemed to be ‘work-related’ but last night I sat down to watch ‘When Teenage Meets Old Age’ on BBC2 (available on the iPlayer).
It’s only the first of a three-part series and the idea was pretty much evident from the title.
The programme focussed on four young people who went to work in a retirement village (which seems to be a mix between sheltered housing with a sheltered/nursing home on site) and tried to challenge intergenerational perceptions.
I am not sure if the generational divide is larger now than it ever has been. I have my doubts but I do think that intergenerational work can be neglected just as, in their different ways, younger people and older people are marginalised by a society that focuses on the ‘majority’.
I also watched through the eyes of my own recollections and attitudes to age when I was younger. By the time I was 18, all my grandparents had died. When I was 20, I first worked in residential care with older adults.
I remember, as the programme highlighted, my utter embarrassment at having to do personal care for an adult – having to help someone who was naked in the shower to wash and confronting the look of an older body.
The programme related some of this discomfort. It was clear that the residents had given consent to the programme being made but I did feel a little uncomfortable at the nature of some of the filming. It didn’t seem prurient though. I think it was important that the nature of care work was presented as it is and the reality of embarrassment on both sides is definitely a reality.
One of the most important things, as I suppose would be self-evident in a programme like this, was that there was a feeling of difference between the older adults and younger adults. Although the focus of the programme initially seemed to be about how the younger adults coped and managed, presenting the older adults as the ‘guinea pigs’, as the programme went on there was more of an effort to get to know the individuals masked behind the older skin. Who they were and who they had been. They had equally fixed perceptions of ‘young people’ and the attitudes on both sides became more open and understanding as they got to know each other.
There were some really touching moments as some of the attitudes were being worn down. I had a theory that working with older adults is not valued because age isn’t valued in our society. This was an interesting attempt to broaden out understanding of age – both younger and older people – to a wider level. Yes, it can be frightening to see what age does to the mind and body but it isn’t something we can run away from however much we might like to. The young people they chose were all enthusiastic and wanting to do well. That helped, of course. I want to know how they get on because I want them to succeed.
Last week, I visited a care home and I saw a picture board of all the residents. It had not only their names but their previous professions and some words about favourite things/experiences. The reason it was there, the manager told me, was so the staff saw the residents as individuals and people who had lives, aspirations and hopes.
The programme seemed to take us through this to learn about the people who live and need residential care. We understand the people that they were as well as the people that they are. I think that is one of the most important things to remember in care work and any work actually – a respect of the individual, their experiences and their hopes. One of the reasons I rail against some of the forms and documents we need for the individual budgets is that I feel they have not been designed for older people – because the agenda was and is being driven from the experiences of adults of working age.
Some of the challenges when working in residential care can be about personal relationships and reactions to people. Sometimes you just get on better on a personality level with some people than others. It can be hard to accept that at first when you have to provide an equal service and it’s the same in my current job. I can’t deny that I like some of the service users I work with more than others. The realisation that you can’t differentiate levels of care between people you like and dislike is one of the most important lessons to be learnt. One of the younger women told the camera that she just didn’t like one of the older women that much – because she felt that the older woman didn’t like her. A fair point actually. I think it did raise the issue of personal attitudes and preferences. We don’t cease to be swayed by personal responses to people but the aim is to work through them and ensure they don’t affect professional practice.
Equally, there has to be the counter-understanding that some care staff will be liked more than others. When things ‘match up’ the ideal outcome is reached but would you like someone who you don’t get on with to be washing you? For many older and disabled people, that is a reality and there is little choice in residential care when staff are rota’d.
You could claim that in the ‘new world’ of personalisation there is more choice but that choice tends to be open to those who are able to choose. It certainly isn’t as open in residential care and hospital settings.
The next parts of the programme will be looking at some of the older adults being taken out of the village by the younger adults to enjoy different activities.
I realise that I’m not the target audience for the makers of programmes like these. I have worked with older adults for a while. I do think anything that presents older adults and moreover disabled and dependent older adults as individuals with histories, likes and dislikes is a positive.
I’ll watch the next episodes to see how the people in the programme get on because I want to know.
For me, working in a residential home at 20 provided the route into a profession that I would never have imagined for myself at that age.
One of the sadnesses that I felt when I watched though was about the lack of intergenerational work that takes place now – and the dichotomous split that seems to be absolute between childrens’ services and adults services in social work. It’s as if adulthood is not seen in the context of childhood and vice versa except where there are other disabilities when ‘transitions’ teams exist.
Unfortunately, now, among the cuts and ravages of the Comprehensive Spending Review, is not the time to be proposing new projects when everything around us is being cut but it would be good to think in the future that the gap between generations could be closed with a bit more effort and understanding from both sides and a bit of encouragement from those of us in the middle.