JRF has some fascinating work going on at the moment under the heading of ‘Risk, trust and relationships in an ageing society’, which includes a theme frequently covered on this blog, ‘everyday, informal support between neighbours, friends, and in communities.’
One of the striking features of this JRF thread is the refreshing focus on the notion of ‘kindness.’ You might not see it being fitted into current government policy all that smoothly, but that’s no reason not to treat it as worthy of research and likely to generate insights.
And let’s pay tribute to the fact that this is not a new departure for JRF, they’re building on a decent track record. Two examples: in 2004 they published Building a good life for older people in local communities, a delight which I’ve cited many times; or you could go back to 1998 for their superb study on the importance of ‘low level’ preventive services to older people.
Now here’s a recent example of the way this work is going, an interim report by Helen Spandler and colleagues on perceptions of giving and being in receipt of informal help. The work so far is based on a quick and not-all-that-dirty street survey, apparently designed to harvest a range of attitudes (and the associated language) to frame subsequent investigation. What the researchers are trying to do is get at the implicit ‘rules’ surrounding the giving and receiving of help.
They note that ‘only a small number of people felt completely comfortable in receiving support from others.’ Religious and cultural contexts have a strong influence, and the tensions around mutual interdependence vs independent individualism soon emerge:
‘Many participants … made reference to Northern working class backgrounds, which they felt valued relationships over material wealth. Yet, that same culture also taught a strong sense of individual independence, which could make the need for help seem like a weakness. In this way, cultures could be experienced as both supportive, and simultaneously as harsh and inflexible.’
A few years ago I drew attention to the work of Lilian Linders in the Netherlands, exploring the significance of the reluctance to ask for help. Lilian’s research highlighted the fact that the imbalance in the provision of informal care lies on the demand side, not the supply side: the extent to which we live in a caring society is constrained by the ‘request scruple’ – a widespread reluctance, for various reasons, to ask for help.
It looks like the present project is finding similar issues. ‘Giving and receiving support’, the researchers note, ‘is constantly negotiated within a complex 'moral economy' of familial, local and societal expectation.’ They describe this as an ecosystem that requires cultivation. Families can be fortresses of support, implicitly discouraging help from elsewhere, but there can be examples where asking is disouraged even within the family. One correspondent said:
‘It makes me feel vulnerable to ask. I reckon my family would translate asking for help as weakness.’
At the heart of all this is the tension between not being seen as 'weak, needy, demanding or ‘undeserving’’ and ‘a strong sense that giving was a good and moral thing to do.’
As we know, social care policy is concerned with the supply side, whether it be support for carers, the uneven provision of personal home care, encouragement to volunteer or whatever. But the challenge for JRF at the end of this programme may be in articulating a call for much broader cultural change: change that will help in overcoming the scruples that people have about asking for help.