A while ago, I asked my friend and much admired business associate, Gill Phillips, to write a guest post for The Age Page, telling the story of what brought her to develop Whose Shoes? And here it is.
She wrote apologetically, "it's a bit l-o-o-o-ng..!". And to paraphrase, I said, "every word is worth time to read and thanks for sharing your revelatory, moving and heartfelt story." It is also inspirational, encouraging and full of humanity.
I have already written a bit about the “work-related” aspects of this in my own ‘Leap of faith’ blog and on the Think Local, Act Personal (TLAP) blog. But Sarah has a deep interest in people. I felt she was interested in my personal life story and the defining milestones that have shaped the journey. What made me passionate about older people? About compassion? About dementia?
I think the truth is that I am interested in all people. In life and in living it to the full. I want everyone to be included in the party.
It is very interesting when people ask you to reflect on your own life. Perhaps we don’t do it often enough. We muddle through life, make this choice rather than that one, get influenced by certain people and it shapes our lives. Certainly, with hindsight, my decision to study Latin was bizarre. It was 100% influenced by the fact I hugely admired the Latin teacher. She stood out as a vibrant, fascinating human being in what was otherwise a very conventional girls’ grammar school! Life is so arbitrary!
Anyway Latin and the other arts subjects I studied taught me to think. Never underestimate a classical education. It stretches your mind and is difficult. It exposes you to some great works, some great thinkers. I loved the “Stoics” – perhaps similar to my own family: my father who’d had a hard upbringing, volunteered for the RAF and spent the years from age 18-24 (think about it, such formative years) out in the Far East. He never spoke about it, burying so many memories. Suddenly, in his last years, he was willing to tell me about it. With much love, I recorded his untold stories on my new voice recorder. Ah, the power of stories. I learned a lot about Dad – and about myself.
Anyway, I digress. I also liked the Epicureans – a much more fun-loving bunch. Life is for living, they said.
I think I have always seen that no one group has all the answers – a Whose Shoes? mindset and perhaps a natural empathy has always been there. There are merits in most things and everyone has interesting experiences and contributions, if others are willing to listen. Conversely, I see dangers if any one group has too much power (oh, the lessons from ancient history) or if things are taken to extremes. I think one weakness of the UK is that we are indeed prone to swing between extremes – the Victorian “children must be seen and not heard” regime through to “children as the centre of the universe”. Meanwhile, our continental cousins get on and love their kids without too many parenting manuals - and collectively rebuke them when they step out of line!
Anyway, I managed to make it through university without succumbing to the wildest excesses of the ancient world! Well that’s my story.
I “wandered” into social care. Certainly it was not my passion then. I just needed a job where my new husband was based. Things are pretty simple when you are young. Armed with a First Class Honours degree, I got accepted on a fast track graduate induction scheme with a Local Authority, It was meant to turn out high fliers, so I probably disappointed as I never really wanted the “big career.” After skimming round the various departments, in a whirl of short placements, the job that I “landed” was in Social Services. I tell you, life is pretty random and my philosophy is to just grab whatever comes along and make things happen from there, particularly for young people. But indeed, for all of us these days.
In theory, I would have liked to work in Education. I had enjoyed a year teaching in France. I have always felt passionately about education as a way of opening doors for everyone. I see people now struggling with the forms and “systems” of a complex care system. How can you possibly navigate the contortions of DLA, CHC, Power of Attorney and all the other jargon wrangles if you do not have education?
But the education department was very “stuffy”. Boy, I would never have lasted five minutes as I have never been one for pomp and self-importance. Social Services was much more free-thinking. I got exposed to new ideas, vulnerable people, nitty gritty “life” issues... and I loved it. I stayed there for 30 years as I jumped from one job to the next, seeking out interesting projects, and finding ways to add a bit of creativity. I worked part-time and, with flexi-time and career breaks, was privileged to be able to fit the demands – and huge enjoyment - of my growing family around some very rewarding work.
Fast forward to now. It is exactly ten years since my cancer diagnosis. Writing this short sentence is hugely symbolic and possibly liberating. At the time I told CLOSE friends only. I was proud of the fact that, even undergoing nine months of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, nobody knew other than those I chose to tell. I have always had a very close network of friends and I was blessed indeed (still am!) as they rallied round and offered support on my terms.
Indeed, there is a Daily Telegraph article THIS WEEK reporting on an American Research study: ‘Friends and family 'boost breast cancer survival' : “Breast cancer patients with a wide circle of friends and relatives are 38 per cent less likely to die within a decade of being diagnosed than those with few friends and less close-knit families”.
Anyway, back to November 2002. My youngest son had just started at secondary school. I didn’t want him to be “different” in any way... until my wig nearly blew off at a Rugby match. ‘Nearly’, I say. I remember I was talking to another Mum (a lovely woman, a friend but not a CLOSE friend – why on earth didn’t I tell her?) I remember the cartoon sketch of holding onto my wig as I struggled to pull my hood up, with a camera round my neck (as always) and a howling gale coming up from nowhere! You NEVER know what is going on in people’s lives and I am acutely aware of this.
The last ten years have been amazing. So many thoughts, so much learning, so much life. More mistakes, possibly, because I tend to “push the boundaries” these days, (indeed a couple this week... :~\) ... but people who know me well understand that my motivation is enthusiasm and a rather quirky sense of humour rather than anything more.
I had the luxury of having a LONG time off work. About 16 months. The last few months were unpaid but I was lucky to have this option and to have a sympathetic GP and line manager who largely “left me alone” (how I like to be, with my friends and family) as I “got my head back together”. I had lost so much confidence. I was not ready for any “fights”.
I heard that a new senior manager (let’s call him Mr X because he was very impersonal) who had never even met me, or indeed had any intention of doing so, wanted to strike me off. Today, I would have been kicked out long before... and who knows what would have happened from there?
As it was, I thank Marcia, my then line manager and now dear friend. She is now a top manager in Buckinghamshire County Council and equally loved by those she works closely with, despite having a hard and often uncompromising job. A true leader - and I have learned since just HOW important good leadership is (and seen, and indeed experienced, the effects of bad leadership.)
Marcia knew my value. We talk a lot in social care about people feeling valued. Managers and leaders in work situations have a HUGE influence on people’s lives. At the time I was working in the Performance Review Team. Marcia knew I never was and never was going to be a bean counter. I was interested in the quality of services – what difference we were making to people’s lives rather than just numbers. I hated the routine and endless quarterly reporting of figures. What the hell was I doing in that team? I really don’t know!
I returned to work on a “phased return”, a wonderful way to help people adjust and get back up to speed, after a long absence. I got up to speed ... quickly! Given the belief that Marcia had in me, and the wonderful qualitative role she found for me within the team, I became a bit of a John Harvey-Jones. I was asked to investigate a failing team. I empowered that team. I found out WHY they were failing – what was within their power to change (not much), and what was actually down to things outside their control (most of it!). I saved someone from a possible nervous breakdown... because I WAS LISTENING! I think it was at this point I started to get very frustrated and wanted to cut through some of the c*** and relate more directly to real people!
My cancer experience has made me impatient. Impatient for life – for me; for everyone. I’d sit at meetings counting how much MONEY this meeting was costing in terms of people’s time and weighing it against the value of what was being achieved. And I mean achieved. SO much talking, some of it clever, but what were the real outcomes? We seemed to spend an awful lot of time “polishing” plans, undertaking training needs analyses, producing monthly, quarterly, annual returns but not necessarily getting on and DOING much! I invented a game called “Bullshit Bingo” ... but that’s another story.
Impatience can be empowering. Life-threatening is the ULTIMATE in empowerment. What matters after that? And now I have met – possibly I’ve brought together – and if so, my life has had a purpose! - the amazing #dementiachallengers. These people ARE making a difference and WILL make a difference. Quickly. No egos.
So who are the #dementiachallengers? ‘Just’ a fab group of like-minded people who have met through Twitter and now, increasingly, meet in real life. Like me, they are all in various ways “unsettled” (yes, perhaps mentally too, who knows?) All are catalysts for change. We have a shared vision, and even more importantly, shared values. It feels SO different and I get up in the morning with fire in my belly. Every day.
One of Sarah’s ideas for my blog was to talk about what sort of extreme old age I imagine for myself. My idolised Grandma lived to 104. My equally loved Mum is rocking on at 90 – and starting to make waves with her “real world” blogging. As you can imagine, after my diagnosis, worrying about how life would treat me in extreme old age was not really up there on my “list of things to worry about.” Now, ten years on, who knows?
Hopefully, I will be living in a world where “old dears” like me are loved and respected, even if I have lost my marbles a bit. Loved and cherished by a large family. My three lovely kids will by then have supplied me with adoring grandchildren and great-grandchildren who, if I have dementia, will love me for who I am and sit and have long cuddles. My long-suffering husband will hopefully hang on in there, like me, defying the odds and getting a cybergram from William & Kate.
I will be the batty old dear in the corner, surrounded by fun and laughter. Probably, knowing my lot, I will be on the receiving end of some pretty sharp but highly personalised banter, some of which I will get and some of which will start to leave me behind. But I will know that this is the loving, rather quirky, environment that we thrive on and the feelings and warmth, rather than any measures of political correctness, will be what matter most to me.
I will do this really quaint thing called tweeting and blogging (“because it keeps her happy”) long after the world has moved on in a completely different direction... ;)
... And, in my excitement I nearly forgot to mention the Whose Shoes? tool, and how I “jumped ship” dramatically from my career of 30 years...
I created this tool out of PURE frustration seeing, as clear as day, that people need to get together and LISTEN to each other in order to develop sustainable improvements. I am thrilled that Whose Shoes? has evolved as a highly regarded co-production tool. I get huge satisfaction from facilitating incredibly varied sessions, seeing “my product” in action.
Last week, for example, began with a session for Extra Care tenants and relatives in Leicestershire... and ended with a session for senior healthcare managers in Wales.
It particularly thrills me when customers come up with their own creative applications (within copyright restrictions, of course!) For example, ‘Enable Scotland’ is currently using Whose Shoes? as part of their job interview process. They are checking out candidates’ values by getting them to co-produce presentations around selected Whose Shoes? scenarios, working with people with learning disabilities... I LOVE it!
I see people, young and old, coming together as human beings, regardless of roles and hierarchies, discussing serious issues. And having fun too.
I am hopeful that the tool will make a serious contribution to “Making It Real (I am now working in partnership with Think Local, Act Personal -TLAP) helping to bring about the wider societal change that we all crave. Stripping out bureaucracy and unnecessary barriers and putting compassion at the heart of every transaction.
The anagram of LISTEN is SILENT. Try it!
You can follow - and join in with #dementiachallengers on Twitter