Tackling Loneliness: For Love, Money or Qualifications

Two stories in the news this week caught my eye.  The first was really an OpEd in the Guardian (UK) paper, penned by the Head of Policy at a very good charity for the deaf/blind called SENSE.

Sue Brown titled her piece “Tackling Loneliness is a Job for Professionals, Not Just Neighbours.”  Anyone following social care trends in the UK press will be used to seeing stories about David Cameron’s (some would say failed and misunderstood) concept of “The Big Society.”  The “BS” as it got nicknamed almost immediately was a call for widespread civic action and neighbourly behaviour.  The fact that deep cuts to social services followed the rallying cry for volunteerism did not go down well with many who were dependent on relatively generous pensions and all forms of social assistance. Brown cites personal choice and freedom as a reason for those with disabilities (or the aged) to rely on the kindness of neighbours:

This also comes down to personal choice. As someone who is physically active and doesn’t have a disability I have the choice whether or not to engage with my neighbours. I can ask them to look after my cat while I’m on holiday, offer to babysit in emergencies. But if I don’t want to I don’t have to. Why should we expect disabled or older people to be any different? They may not want to rely on those who live next door for company and indeed we cannot guarantee that those who are inclined to offer this support live next door to those who need it.

 The author pits the politics of Big Society or civic engagement made personal against the defense of decent professional services paid for by the government.

In my opinion, Sue Brown has it wrong.  We need both.  Brown has conflated these two issues.  Of course, one should not expect the lady next door to create a speaking computer or deliver an IV medication.  But community building and every form of personal kindness should be encouraged by everyone, all the time.  Sue Brown missed the boat.

So, then I read an Atlantic Monthly article titled “The US Economy Does Not Value Caregivers” by the erudite Anne-Marie Slaughter.  This author doesn’t conflate anything – she’s got it right.  The modus operandi of the United States with its ethic of competition, excellence and survival of the fittest is in tension with, if not in opposition to, an ethic of care.  This is how Slaughter explains her point of view:

I’m all for competition—in its place. But we have lost sight of the care paradigm, which is the necessary complement to competition. As Bill Gates put it, “the two great forces of human nature are self-interest and caring for others.”

The care paradigm starts from the premise that human beings cannot survive alone. Our progress as a species flows from our identity as social animals, connected to one another through ties of love, kinship, and clanship. Success is defined not as individual victory but as group progress, whether the group is family, clan, community, company, or any particular subdivision of society. In the care paradigm, the individual does not disappear; the progress of the group advances the individual as well. All members of the group also have the security of knowing that whether they are young or old, ill or weak, they will be cared for in their turn. Caring is part and parcel of building community.

I agree with Anne-Marie Slaughter – caring IS part of building community and it is care that keeps us safe and secure.  It is loving care that banishes loneliness, not the visits of professionals.  But make no mistake, we need both.  You can’t replace love with clinical services and you can’t replace essential, life sustaining services with love and good intentions.