When my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2014, it was fairly certain that over time both he and my mum would require increasing levels of support to live their lives. Yet it proved impossible to engage either of them in a conversation about that future. It became clear that they regarded social care as something to be avoided and which threatened rather than helped protect the life they valued. Their thoughts about it were driven by loss aversion.
Looking at the dominant narrative about social care, it was hardly surprising that they held this view. It was largely described as broken and in crisis, with stories of abuse and neglect cutting through to the public. Those with cause to draw on it were largely described in highly paternalistic, passive and condescending tones as ‘our most vulnerable.’ It was also framed as a destination, suggesting that requiring social care meant leaving your cherished life behind, rather than being a vehicle to live your life well. So my parents struggled on without support for far longer than they could cope, hit a crisis and my dad ended up in hospital and never recovered. If their attitude to social care — in the face of actually needing support — gives clues to public mindsets more generally, then it’s hardly surprising how hard it has proved to command public support for investment and reform.
The table below contrasts the dominant story about care with the one that reflects Social Care Future’s worldview.
If you’re unfamiliar with social care, our reframed narrative probably seems somewhat unremarkable. If you follow the debate, you’ll recognise just how different it is — or at least was — to the way social care is most often discussed:
We all want to live in the place we call home, with the people and things that we love, in communities where we look out for one another, doing what matters to us. Sometimes, we, or people we care about may need some extra support to achieve this, because of a health condition or disability. That’s the role of social care. When organised well, social care is about weaving a web of support and relationships in our local communities that we can all draw on to live our lives the way we want to, with meaning, purpose and connection, whatever our age or stage in life. There are already many places and organisations that are working towards this, doing social care differently by putting control into the hands of people and communities, connecting people and resources together. This should be happening everywhere and for everyone. To do so, our national government needs to begin investing more in care and support now, while local councils need to begin working alongside and in support of local people and communities to bring these new ways of working to life.
The statement above is the product of Social Care Future’s work to put forward a new narrative, or ‘North Star,’ about what social care should be and do, and why it is valuable to everyone to wish to see investment and reform. We are a movement for change, born of frustration but fuelled by hope, centrally involving people who themselves draw on social care support for themselves or people they care about, as well as allies who believe we can change the way we think about, organise, finance and commission social care support. We view changing the story told and heard about social care as central to achieving this mission.
The development of the narrative followed the four stages articulated by US organisation Heartwired, beginning by agreeing the change we were seeking in the world, before mapping the current landscape of discourse and thinking, then exploring public mindsets and finally testing and refining messages and narratives based upon how persuasive they proved to be with public audiences. At every stage, we centrally involved members of our movement, including people who draw on support to live their lives. We drew on distilled learning from experts in the field such as Heartwired, Anat Shenker Osorio, Thomas Coombes, PIRC, Common Cause, the Frameworks Institute, A Larger Us, Simon Lancaster and our research partners, Equally Ours and Survation. We mined insights about framing and narrative change in specific fields, such as in relation to poverty, climate, human rights and homelessness. We also worked with the Centre for Corpus Linguistics in Social Sciences at Lancaster University to digitally map both news and social media discourse.
The results gave us the confidence to assert that our narrative was capable of shifting public mindsets about what social care should be and do, and the values it invoked. For example, following exposure to the narrative research participants were far less likely to associate social care with vulnerability and more likely to associate it with words such as freedom, independence and community. Moreover, they were more likely to express support for investment and reform.
It would be misleading of me to suggest that we had a well worked out plan to pollinate our new narrative out in the wider world. Social Care Future is a movement, not an organisation, and certainly not one with significant infrastructure or communications capacity. However, since emerging in 2018 we have occupied what had been a vacant space in the debate about social care, convening people and organisations on and offline while using social media to reach new audiences, using the developing narrative as the shared story under which people have come together.
While we produced guidance and have run workshops with Equally Ours, it is largely through the movement channels we have established that the narrative has been disseminated and has taken root in spaces and places that we either hadn’t foreseen or which have exceeded our expectations. For example, as well as organisations already involved with Social Care Future it has also been adopted and adapted by among others, the Labour Party, the Alzheimer’s Society, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Adult Social Care and various local councils across England, as well as the government in the recent White Paper on Adult Social Care, while the insights, such as centreing on home and positioning social care as a solution rather than a problem have been adopted by campaigners across Europe and in the USA.
Our work on narrative is one part of a broader strategy for change, but it has proved to be the most significant and influential initiative we have undertaken and one which provides focus and cohesion to both our wider work and those who identify with our movement. But we still feel the debate is largely in the wrong place, focused on funding and systems, rather than a debate about what it means to live together and the values that can secure a future we all have reason to value. So this year, inspired by movements such as Caring Across Generations in the USA and Every Australian Counts we’re going to explore taking this work to the next level, setting our sights on building a big powerful, inclusive movement and campaign to pursue our vision in England. These are difficult times. Achieving the change we seek is going to be really hard work. But, as Raymond Williams said,
“to be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.”
Neil Crowther is a co-convener of #SocialCareFuture, a movement for social change, with people who draw on social care at its heart. He led its work to develop a new narrative. Neil has previously led work on reframing human rights, and ageing and is currently supporting a major law organisation in its work to think about reframing justice. His other areas of focus including disability rights and transforming support for people living with dementia.
From caring for the vulnerable to caring about each other — a new narrative about social care was originally published in Reset Narratives on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.