“We want more than just to be alive and kicking”: developing innovative care to promote normalisation of individual older persons

By Henglien Lisa Chen

Social work with older people in some countries is an area which has received less acknowledgement and investment – the recent global economic crisis has further diminished adequate care services and decreased the provision of well-qualified social work professionals for older people. In contrast, in other countries, there has been increased investment in ageing care innovation and professional training. As a social worker and academic, I would argue that older people, just like everyone in society, deserve not only just to be alive and kicking but to be able to live meaningful and dignified lives. This requires (student) social workers to gain multi-disciplinary knowledge about ageing and to pay attention to working with older people. Therefore, International Social Work Week provides a most appropriate opportunity to share a few observations on ageing care from a number of countries with you. By doing so, the hope is to stimulate more awareness on the importance of ageing care and greater action in innovating appropriate care support.

My interest in cross-national research into ageing care came from my experiences as a local authority social worker in England. During that time, I often wondered about ways of supporting older people based on a needs-led approach. The examples I visited in Denmark , the Netherlands and Taiwan show that care providers (e.g. care homes, day centres, etc.) are able to provide buffet-type meals, so older people can decide on what they like to eat at the dining table. Similarly, the care in one of the Danish care centres involved an indoor leisure room provided with various things that an individual can chose from with support from staff and volunteers. Both examples demonstrate a needs-led approach involving maximising choices and flexibility of support in meeting the need for normality of the individuals.

Social inclusion and service accessibility is important in ageing care to prevent isolation and depression. In the Netherlands, the project reports A City of All Ages and Generation in Action have provided guidelines for inter-generational participation. Relevant local services (e.g. schools, social clubs, day centres, care homes, etc.) and authorities (e.g. education, welfare, social care, housing, etc.) look to increasing participation between children, young people and older people through intergenerational working projects in community development. Similar projects can also been found in some parts of Germany.

Various methods of care support for older people across the countries mentioned above can be understood by welfare typologies which explain the welfare state involvement in care and the impact on the roles and models of the social worker. It also shapes the different focus on social work education across countries. For example, while social work education in England focuses on problem-based learning to develop the student social worker’s capability in working with individuals, programme-based learning (for more information, search for books with the keyword ‘programme evaluation’) is one of the focuses of social work education in Taiwan to develop the student social worker’s capability in identifying the needs of older people and innovating care support services with relevant carers, professionals and agencies.

Apart from the direct support through services for people and an accessible environment as mentioned earlier, there has been increasing technological innovation in ageing care to promote the well-being  of older people, e.g. devices to help prevent falls and protect older people (and people with impairment and disability). These can be as simple as exercise bands to as technically advanced as a robot nurse. The exercise bands assist older people with slow-movement exercises (e.g. raising the arms/legs) to strengthen their gait and balance to help prevent falls. The robot nurse invented by a Japanese institute could potentially help older people to move from chair to bed, room to room or toileting when they are alone. So they will be unlikely to need to wear incontinence pads or be admitted to a care home due to mobility restriction. It also prevents the staff risks related to moving and handling an older person.

There is little doubt that ‘home is where the heart is!’ To promote ‘ageing in place’, we need social workers who understand their local needs and to invent support services in meeting those needs. From the examples shown above, I learn that to maintain the dignity of older people we need high-quality care and caring professionals that can offer the maximum of choices, accessibility and privacy in meeting the need for normalisation and social inclusion of local individuals.

Social work faces a new level of challenges and opportunities on ‘how’ we can possibly promote the dignity and worth of older people in the 21st century when there is increasing expectation of the quality of care in later life:

  • How to provide a wide-range of holistic, personal and technical support to individuals in a sustainable and accessible environment?
  • How to take advantage of global learning in advancing indigence care?
  • How to provide an increasingly broad range of multi-disciplinary knowledge to student social workers within a 2-4 year higher education programme?

Let’s share our thoughts!


March 20, 2012. Tags: , , , , , . World Social Work Day.

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