Yesterday, the High Court ruled in the case of R (on the application of McDonald) v Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. This was a further appeal by McDonald against a previous decision at a lower court.
Elaine McDonald is 68 year old woman who worked as a ballerina in her younger days. The press seems to be a little fixated on her former career, and she does have a more glamorous background than many who come to rely heavily on social care so perhaps it is no surprise. Ms McDonald suffered from a debilitating stroke in 1999 and had a further fall in 2006 which led to very poor mobility. Although not medically incontinent, she required assistance to use the commode during the night. She had been provided with overnight support to meet her assessed needs related to continence during the night however Kensington and Chelsea were suggesting that this need could be met by substituting this assistance with the provision of continence pads during the night which would, by their nature, demand that Ms McDonald remain in these pads until carers could come in the morning and at intervals to ‘change’ her.
I wasn’t surprised by the decision by the High Court because there are precedents that led the access of local authorities to resources to be a factor in relation to the provision of services.
In my own working experience, it is impossible to access any kind of home care support overnight except in some very specific cases where there is very high need support and even then, it is much much more likely to be provided to younger adults with physical disabilities. I can count on the fingers of one hand the amounts of times I’ve come across local authority funded overnight support in the last 10+ years of practice.
Sometimes I have to take a step back from what I regard as ‘normal’ practice to understand the outrage at this decision. I realise how I become attuned to ‘local authority’ think and ‘budgetary’ think and that’s quite an uncomfortable thought.
We get used to applying different definitions of ‘dignity’ and what is acceptable because we are aware of the thousands of Ms McDonalds that require support and the existence of a finite resource. So do you support the Ms McDonalds and assist them to provide a fuller and more dignified life at home or do you provide 8 Ms Smiths with respite care over the year. These are the realities of the decisions and it shouldn’t have to be so.
Perhaps that’s why I’m less surprised by the McDonald ruling and less surprised by it.
There are though horrendous inequities in our system of the provision of social care. Where Ms McDonald in Kensington and Chelsea may be receiving a vastly different service from a parallel Ms McDonald in Newham. I would venture a guess that there are thousands of potentially very similar cases to Ms McDonald bubbling under the surface ‘in the system’ but because they are not ex-Prima ballerinas and don’t have the will, way and means to bring cases and involve solicitors, we will never know about them.
If anything is, quite literally, the ‘dirty secret’ of social care and health care provision particularly for older adults, it is this.
We have different standards of what we class as being ‘dignified’ for ourselves as for others. What might class as dignity to an older adult has less value and invites less spending to an equivalent younger adult with exactly the same care needs. Those who shout loudest get the most – as far as care is concerned and as far as public interest is concerned. The shame and pity of the ‘personalisation’ agenda and the flawed implementation of personal budgets in social care have exacerbated this problem further rather than provided a channel to allow for a more equitable system of care delivery.
It sometimes feel cruel and harsh, because it is a cruel and harsh system that it perpetuated by discriminatory systems. Would the warehouse-style very large residential and nursing care homes with 100+ beds be acceptable for younger adults with similar care needs? I don’t think so. I don’t mean to imply that every large care home is bad and every small care home is good. That isn’t the case. It’s about a fundamental reassessment of what is acceptable in the provision of care for older people in our society.
I make no apology for my less erudite post and thoughts. The more I work and the more I reflect, the more interplay I see between the basic conceits of ethics and ethical judgement in the role that I play as a part of this system that condones this mealy mouthed interpretation of human rights merely on the basis of cost and resourcing issues.
It is accepted because our society is inherently ageist. We don’t want to think or pay for the care of older people. We care more about our collective inheritances and potential house prices than the more collective thoughts about where the boundaries of an acceptable level of care and dignity lie.
If anything, this has impressed on me the importance of constant reflection on my practice and my work. I can advocate to an extent, from within the system, for the dignity of those like Ms McDonald and I try to. Some I win and some I lose but as long as I make my voice heard through every step of the process I can help to feed the voices ‘from the front line’ back to the more senior managers.
I make judgements and I am the mouthpiece of the local authority. I am an employee but the second that I become complacent, the moment I stop reflecting on the effects the decisions I make have and the instant that I join that local authority ‘group think’, I lose my ethical compass and my professional judgement.
I talk a lot about important qualities of social workers and social care workers. Respect, empathy and to that I’d add advocacy. It might not always be seen in the internal battles that we fight, but we have to try to fight so as not to accept a ‘normal’ that is defined on the bank balance sheets of the local authority accountants.