I had just begun to learn about a great way of working alongside people called Person Centred Planning. I was inspired by its underlying values of inclusion and equality for all and had taken part in a great course about how to facilitate the process. I was raring to go. The first person I got the chance to use the approach with was a pensioner called William who a colleague of mine offered visiting support to. His mother had passed away a few years earlier and he was supported by a paid carer who lived near to his top floor tenement flat. This person helped him with a lot of practical everyday things and was frankly a bit over-controlling of him, but in many respects he was a very independent man who got around town often under his own steam.
So William and I did a lot of preparatory work for the plan during a series of fascinating conversations where he told me his story with a great passion and detail, though with only a passing grasp of chronology. However, when things had happened mattered much less than the deep experiences which he shared including spending time in the ‘mental handicap’ hospital at Gogarburn, just outside of Edinburgh – an experience which contrasted dramatically with his current more independent existence.
We agreed I would capture what he was telling me using graphics (which included pictures, shapes and colours) to enable him to remember what mattered most for when we brought others who cared about him together to help him plan. I vividly remember being about to jump on the bus to go to his flat when I realised I had forgotten those notes on big paper. I had a choice – just continue to get on the bus so that I wasn’t late and just apologise about forgetting the poster – or turn around get off the bus, go and fetch the paper and arrive at William’s with the paper but 15 minutes late. I am convinced that the old professional me would have done the former but when I thought about how much William had enjoyed the graphic recording and how much work he had put into it, I was clear that was more important to him than being a wee bit late. I got off the bus.
From my perspective I had put quite a lot of effort into being genuine, attentive, creative and accepting – in other words I was doing my very best to be ‘person centred’. After several meetings together I supported him to invite a number of people who knew him best and cared about him to join us to help him create a Person Centred Plan. During our first planning meeting he was asked by others present about some of his preferences and interests, ‘What do you want William?’ However, he invariably would turn to me with a questioning look as though to ask “What do you think?”
I would look back at him, glowing encouragement, and say with absolute sincerity and conviction, ”But it’s your meeting!” William would then grin knowingly and say with a shrug of the shoulders and heavy irony “Aye, right!”
I guess that after 70 years of being told what to do and having people make decisions for him – his mother, his carer, the nursing staff in the hospital – it was going to take more than a Person Centred Planning meeting and a fresh-faced fired-up social worker to convince William that we genuinely wanted him to be in charge.
It certainly brought it home to me that personcentredness needs to be a daily experience rather than an occasional pleasant interlude to truly place power and control back in the hands of people who may have experienced a lifetime of being seen as something less than citizens.