Teaching and Learning Dignity

Yesterday there was an announcement about a new report and consultation  on the issue of ‘Dignity in Care’ (NHS Confederation – pdf).

I wrote a piece about this for the Guardian Social Care Network and don’t want to repeat myself here.

But I did engage in a brief conversation on Twitter whilst on the bus on my way to work (!) about how dignity can be assessed at interview level and how it can be possible or if it’s possible to train dignity into staff.

Apart from reverting to my possibly over-simplistic point that people are far more likely to treat others with dignity if they are treated with dignity themselves, I also reflected a lot on my role as a Practice Educator. I take social work students on placement and see them through their practice learning opportunities which (in my experience) last between 90-120 days.

It’s pretty clear to me gain insight into someone’s values over this period. Information, policies, protocols and law can be taught. Values seem to be inherent. While I think the idea of testing ‘compassion’ on interview is faintly ridiculous, there is a lot that can be learnt when you work alongside someone (not necessarily as their supervisor) over a period of months.

One thing I am very sensitive to is dismissive language. Of course, some people are unaware of the intrinsic pain that some labels can cause and that’s an issue of education. To some, an affectionate and endearing ‘old dear’ might be a term of respect but to some it might be patronising and offensive. In that sense language can be taught.

Actions speak loudly as well. I have heard of university courses that marginalise work with or about older people or mental health courses that are very dismissive of organic mental illnesses. They are somehow ‘different’ and by implication less ‘important’ to know about.

It’s easy to throw words around but words reflect values. I will be patient and explain that the first or second time if I hear patronising language or words that over generalise the needs of older adults and assume a homogenous group of over 65s – because sometimes it’s about the intent behind the language as well. I expect some learning though.

I think the needs of older adults should be reflected far more in social work training and not marginalised. Yes, it’s difficult in a generic programme to cover everything but just judging from the knowledge levels of the students who come to our team (from a number of different universities), I am surprised that there’s not more work being done on challenging ageism alongside other discrimination on the training courses.

As well as language there are many attitudes that remain worryingly present in the social work and social care field. The assumptions that older adults are dependent or vulnerable solely by virtue of their age or that age is something to fear. We need to make age more celebrated in this country, in this culture and in this area of practice so that we can better regard everyone and incorporate dignity, respect and compassion into all sectors of society – not only health and social care. That’s when the issue will truly be tackled. As for the report – I’ll give it about 2 years before we see an almost identical one giving almost identical recommendations. Cynical? Well, maybe just a little bit!