Thursday, 28 February 2013

Eastleigh By Election

It just occurred to me, watching  the Eastleigh by election results, that huge amounts of work goes on in a by-election, totally disproportionate to the result.

Thousands of doors are knocked on, hundreds of doorstep conversations.

As a consequence of all that work, one person gets a pretty well paid job. Then everyone goes away, and the streets are empty again. Even with all the politicians and journalists patrolling the streets, the food bank at Eastleigh ran out of food last week.
What's left behind when all the press
and politicians go back to Westminster?

Imagine if all that work of canvassing and door knocking had been intentionally dedicated to linking up lonely and isolated people, building community groups and community resilience, actually solving a few community problems.

It might even make a by-election worth all the effort and expense.

Parliament has so little power these days that most people don't see much point in voting. In Italy they're even voting for comedians.

Political parties have lost their mass memberships and their connections with many local communities.

I think they need to turn themselves around 180 degrees, stop pointing themselves obsessively inward towards Westminster and start pointing back outward thinking about what they can do to actually serve the communities that elect them.

Maybe by-elections should be turned upside down. Instead of getting one person from a community into power, they could be about getting power back to people in the community...

Monday, 25 February 2013

A Funeral With A Difference

I was really inspired by this story in the Huffington Post about the funeral of James McConnell.

When this man died, alone in a nursing home, it was looking like he'd have nobody at his funeral, except maybe one or two of the home's care staff. I've been at funerals like that myself.

The local vicar, Reverend Bob Mason didn't want to preside over such a sad occasion, and began to campaign over facebook for people to attend the funeral. Thanks to his work well over 200 attended, including many other veterans of the Royal Marines, who gave him a far more fitting send-off.

Here's the radical question: What if someone had done the same thing a year earlier, when McConnell was alone and unvisited in his nursing home? Maybe 200 people wouldn't have responded. Maybe not even 20. What if 2 people had responded, and visited him maybe once a month each? That would have given him a fortnightly visit to look forward to in the last year of his life.

What if we did this with many more of the people living isolated lives? What if we started thinking that connecting isolated people up with other people was as important as giving them their medication or a wash?

Is it a daft question? What do you think?

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

You only see what you're looking for.

Here's a story that proves the point that you only see what you're looking for.

Researchers took this image into the places where radiologists work. The radiologists were absolutely brilliant at looking at what the picture revealed about the patient's health condition.

Only 17% of them spotted the big gorilla in the upper right of the picture.

We train our attention onto one thing, we miss everything else. The better we get at focussing on one thing, the more of everything else we miss!

Full story from NPR here

That's why we need to change what we are looking for when we meet people who use health and social care. We've been trained and conditioned over the years and by the risk averse culture and atmosphere of health and social care services to ask "what's wrong with this person?" "what do they need help with?" "what are their deficits?" All our attention gets focussed into these areas.

There's nothing particularly wrong with those questions. They're useful to pick up things that can be 'fixed'. But they only reveal a small part of who that person is, and when we focus solely on what can be fixed, we start thinking we can fix everything, and even that we have a right to 'fix' people when actually we should be working to accept them for who they are, and enable them to safely be who they are in the wider community.

We need some different questions: Questions that direct and focus our attention onto positive aspects and potentials of the person.

The person centred thinking and planning movement has spent the last couple of decades thinking of other questions and other things to look for, helped by ideas like appreciative inquiry and capacity thinking. Person centred thinking questions add a whole range of subjects to our focus:

A key question to start with is "What is important TO this person". This includes a range of questions: What helps this person to feel comfortable? satisfied? happy? What brings them contentment and fulfilment? This could include people, places, social roles, important rituals, how things are done.

Another key question focusses on the person's gifts. How many professional assessments look into what a person's gifts and skills are? What their passions are? What they have to offer? What their achievements are? What people like and admire about them? By not asking these questions we implictly assume that the person we're working with is not gifted, cannot achieve anything, has nothing to offer. We need to become as skilled as radiographers are at spotting potential tumours, in how we spot people's potential gifts.

We need to ask the same questions when we enquire into the community - where are the potential spaces where this person can contribute to their community? Where are the opportunities to have presence? To make connections? To contribute? Where are this person's particular gifts welcome? Where can they have valued roles?

When we've spotted and shared these things, then comes the support questions: how do we support the person to get more of what's important to them? How do we support them to express their gifts? How do we support them to connect with and contribute to the community? And in doing all this, how can we also keep them and others healthy and safe? How do we help the person stay healthy and safe in a way that's consistent with what's important to them?

There are a lot more person centred questions than this, and many different ways of asking and exploring the same questions - but these few are a great place to start. There are tens of thousands of people still out there who have had services imposed on them that have still never asked these questions, thought about them deeply enough or turned the answers into actions; people whose support is reduced to a set of mindless mehanical tasks, support that keeps them trapped in lives that make no sense to them, where they have no real choice or control.

Lots of questions to ask, lots of things to spot. But lurking in each person there could be a big positive hairy wonderful gorilla that everyone else has missed, because they weren't asking the right questions or looking in the right places.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Living With Open Hands

Every so often I'm going to use this space to highlight a blog that I think has something special about it.

The first blog I've chosen to share is 'Living With Open Hands', a blog by Ron Irvine.

The reason I've chosen  this blog is because every single post contains something that forces you to think. Ron chooses to live under the rising, rather than the setting sun, and therefore he sees possibilities where others see problems, sees human capacities where others see deficits, sees people as mysteries to be explored where others see problems to be cured.

Some recent posts I'd like to point you toward are: Being Human; A Profound Paradox I don't know whether you could call it a religious post, but it is a deeply spiritual one, challenging us to explore who we are, and who the people are around us.

Ron's post A Meaningful Life contains resources that help us name and claim our own gifts, then use them to contribute to the others around us. It contains a chart on capacity thinking that I try to look at as often as I can:
The place to take and share our gifts is the community. Ron has collected together a wealth of thinking and resources around community building, including a whole set of videos of John McKnight explaining his ideas: On Community
His thoughts on how we marginalise other humans are also very powerful. The question of marginalisation, how we separate ourselves and our species, how we weaken and divide ourselves by excluding 'the other' is one of the questions we need to answer. Ron stands on the side of the marginalised, downtrodden, excluded, invisible, forgotten, despised, reviled and paradoxically gains his strength from this. We have unbalanced our society, and it must sooner or later come back into balance.
Overall I think Ron's message is that any work we begin, begins with ourselves. We need to begin every change we wish to see in the world by trying to create it internally, and on our own doorstep. I don't think this however leads to self-indulgent introspection. Ron's thought is intensely practical and focussed on real people and real world issues. For Ron, doing arises out of being. So what we do and what we are must reflect each other.
Once you've found Living With Open Hands, you will wait with great anticipation for every next post.
I won't speculate on why Ron writes. Luckily I don't need to. He explains why in his post The Sacred and the Boundless:

For me, writing has become a way for me to find my voice
and to give voice to my questions;
a journey
from dogmatism and certainty to inquiry and dialogue,
from living with clenched fists to living with open hands.
Because thinking begins with a question, and ends with an answer, we need more writers like Ron who ask questions that never quite get answered, so that we're always driven to keep thinking and exploring.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Local Food Justice

My last post on the UK Horsemeat scandal and the need for local communities to regain control over those fundamental aspects of our lives, like our food, how we support each other, how we live prompted a reply from John O'Brien, which from my perspective is about as incredible as Shakespeare leaving a comment on a blogpost by Jeffrey Archer, with or without those certain logistical issues.

I noticed that the link he posted hasn't been activated by blogger, so I'm reposting it here so that you can click straight through onto the video he recommends. Well worth a watch!

Local food justice initiatives have been fertile ground for contributing roles for people with learning difficulties and autism. Learn about one effort at


Food Fight

Something's been building up inside me as the scandal around adulterated Tesco burgers, contaminated Findus Lasagne and the fact that the multinational food industry has been feeding us horsemeat in the guise of beef, at least since August on a fairly massive scale.
Behind the scenes, but across the country, in community after community, things have been happening that I'm only just realising were the beginnings of a groping toward an unconscious defence against just such eventuality.

Because for the last year or so, in response to growing need and hardship, communities have been setting up food banks, to make sure their hardest pressed members got fed. Volunteers have been collecting from neighbours, and recycling food that might otherwise have been dumped.

This has been coupled with ideas like 'slow food' and 'grow it local', where land owned by the council the NHS, or just standing idle has been reclaimed by the community for 'Community Food Growing Initiatives'.
Would you like to know how many times you've been eating this?

What these developments suggest to me that we're intrinsically sensing, is that food has just got out of our control. Whether it's pink chicken mush, burgers and buns that simply never look mouldy, factory farmed, antibiotic stuffed stressed animals, we really don't like to even think about it, but for many it's all that's available to us.

We're thinking that if communities win back control over the food we eat, we can eat something that we actually know where it came from, how fresh it is, what chemicals it contains.

And communities need to win back control over other parts of the 21st Century that are going wrong too. All those people who may exist in the same geographical space, but are trapped without any contact with the community around them, little hermetically sealed units where they may or may not get the occasional visit from a health or social care agency, but where for years the person's actual neighbours have not felt confident to tread. We need to break down those invisible walls that are dividing our communities.

Clydesdale Community Food Market

In all our communities, we need to win back control over our food, our health, our care for ourselves and each other.

Cormac Russell recently spoke to the people at 'Occupy Wall St'. He said to them: "When you've finished occupying here, I hope you go back and occupy your own communities. That's where the hearts are being ripped out of you, that's where the process begins that ends in Wall St. The movement for change can only start on your own doorsteps"

While our superstores are feeding us horsemeat, our communities are building alternatives. Today we're struggling to win back control over the very stuff of life - our food, our relationships, our lives. We're choosing to do it in community.

I got the images for this post from:


Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Neighbourliness: A Potential Life Saver

I was saddened to read this: about Gloria Foster: an elderly woman from Surrey, who basically starved alone in her house for 9 days, after the agency providing her care was shut down after a UK Border Agency raid. Tragically, support did not get to her in time, and she died two weeks ago in hospital.

It's not clear what went wrong, but somehow she was left without any care whatsoever.

I can imagine how her neighbours feel. They probably wish they'd done more, but they probably assumed social care had it all covered.

Imagine the difference if she'd been able to use a circle facilitator/community connector - if a couple of neighbours had been invited to bob in once a week, been given permission to nip in for a chat put her bins out for her or take her cat to the vets. The kind of things neighbours used to do for each other.

This informal 'circle of support' might have noticed that suddenly nobody was turning up. That Gloria was in desperate need of help, made that crucial phone call to social services.
Neighbourliness Doesn't Have To Be A Thing Of the Past

Organising an informal circle wouldn't have cost a lot of money, compared to the cost of homecare 4X a day, but it could have helped her be less lonely and isolated from her local community.
Would it have saved her life? I don't know, but I do think her life would have been less lonely, and loneliness is our 21st Century plague.

There are definitely many questions to be answered here, I'm assuming this provider was chosen on cost grounds, but nobody seems to have checked how the provider could manage to be so cheap, it appears they were exploiting the cheap labour of illegal immigrants in order to do this.

I don't think a circle could 'replace' formal care. You can only ask so much of your neighbours. However without a circle, a person's vulnerability increases due to the one dimensional nature of their support. Circles might not save money initially, though in the long term they could act as a form of prevention. Lonely socially isolated people tend to die 7 years earlier than average. Being lonely and unconnected is as lethal as smoking.

 A circle of support might not replace formal care, but it can keep those carers in their place, enabling the person to get the best out of their supports and hold their professional carers to account.

If Gloria had be 8, instead of in her 80s, this story would have got far more publicity. The tabloids would be calling for senior heads to roll, whether or not they had anything to  do with the mistakes that were made. Instead, because Gloria was an elderly woman, her story is relegated to a small paragraph, another sad footnote about the failings of the formal care system.

The inquiry, by Surrey Safeguarding Adults board is not believed to be a serious case review...