An important document of relevance to Public Libraries was published recently. It is the Equality and Human Rights Commission report; Close to home: an enquiry into older people and human rights in home care.
The report contains no mention of libraries and there is absolutely no reason why it should. It is not about libraries at all; and yet it is very relevant to the whole debate about the role and future of libraries.
Some librarians and library campaigners might even think that the report damages the case for libraries and provides ammunition for those who want to cut local authority library budgets. One argument that has been used by the leaders of local councils is that much as they would like to maintain funding for libraries they are forced to make decisions about priorities. The cost of providing support for the growing population of elderly people is a major and increasing part of the local authority budget and therefore they have no choice but to cut back on other, non-essential areas such as libraries. Libraries, they argue, are nice and may have widespread support, but the priority has to be looking after vulnerable people in the community.
This report makes it clear that there are many failing in the quality of home care for elderly people. The inquiry revealed many examples of older people’s human rights being breached, including physical or financial abuse, disregarding their privacy and dignity, failing to support them with eating or drinking, treating them as if they were invisible, and paying little attention to what they want. The inevitable and immediate conclusion is that more money should be spent on home care and that to find this extra money library budgets have to be cut. There is little doubt that many politicians, council officers and commentators will take this line.
Does this mean that librarians, and those who campaign in support of libraries, should ignore this report, or dismiss it as not relevant? I think the answer is no. We should pay attention to this report and think about what it means. For those whose job is to run public library services, or who believe in the value of libraries, we must not bury our head in the sand. This report demonstrates an important reality about the situation facing local authorities; a reality that we cannot ignore.
But I am not conceding that this report means that it is futile to fight for libraries. I believe that we need to develop library services that meet the needs of our communities and advocate for the value of libraries, and both of these can only be done with a full understanding of the reality of the situation facing local authorities. I don't think that we deserve to be listened to if we can't show that we fully appreciate the challenge facing our authority's social services department. Above all I believe that this reality strengthens our case.
By this I don't just mean that there are aspects of the library service that can benefit those receiving home care. There is a bigger and more fundamental issue.
This key message of this report is that it is essential that care services respect people's basic human rights. Councils need to take a holistic approach. It is not enough to provide care workers to wash and feed elderly people in their homes. They have to consider their needs as people and to recognize that they have basic human rights. Public authorities also have ‘positive obligations’ to promote and protect human rights. The underlying causes of bad practices are largely due to systemic problems rather than the fault of individual care workers and are caused by a failure to apply a human rights approach to home care provision. The report states;
"Whilst financial restraint is an inescapable reality, our evidence shows that some local authorities are still successfully finding innovative ways of doing things differently, rather than doing less of the same".
The report also highlights a clear need for supportive senior leadership on the central importance of quality, including respect for human rights principles such as dignity and personal autonomy, in the services commissioned. It warns that commissioning care should not be focused only on price.
I believe that this person-centred approach to decision making will highlight the value of library services as an essential and integral part of supporting the dignity and human rights of elderly people. It shows that cutting library services in order to fund social services not only does not produce a significant amount of cash but also contradicts the core goal of the local authority. Libraries are central to human rights and civilisation. You cannot have a human rights focus to care and not take account of libraries.
As I said above, this is the big message to be found in this report, but I will finish by enumerating some of the specific ways in which the public library service can contribute to the human rights of elderly people receiving care.
• Care is about quality of life. For many people reading is a key element of this.
• Isolation and loneliness. For some people reading can help reduce the sense of isolation. A visit from a home library service can be an opportunity for social contact. Getting out of the house is a major problem but if this can be overcome the local library could be a place to visit.
• Information. The report says that older people and their families need to have access to better information when making choices about care provision. The library can provide a range of information.
• The report goes on to say:
"Even when the information is available, it is often not easy to find, or easy to access. For instance, it is often online, although nearly 6 million people aged 65 and over have never used the internet: 42 per cent of those aged 65-74 and 76 per cent of people aged 75 and over. We were also told of information that is inconsistent, out of date or incorrect."
The role of the public library in overcoming the digital divide has been clearly demonstrated e.g. Brighton & Hove libraries winning the Guardian Public Service innovation & progress: transformation award for 2011.
• Support for care workers. The low pay and status of care workers is a fundamental issue that needs to be addressed directly. However the training and development of staff is important. Libraries should be an integral part of the councils' staff development programme and can contribute by developing empathy with elderly people through fiction and non fiction.
What do you see, nursie, what do you see,
what are you thinking when you're looking at me?
A crabby old woman, not very wise,
uncertain of habit, with faraway eyes.
Who dribbles her food and makes no reply
when you say in a loud voice, "I do wish you'd try?"
Who seems not to notice the things that you do,
and forever is losing a stocking or shoe.
Who, resisting or not, lets you do as you will
with bathing and feeding, the long day to fill.
Is that what you're thinking? Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse; you're not looking at me.
I'll tell you who I am as I sit here so still,
as I use at your bidding, as I eat at your will.
I'm a small child of ten with a father and mother,
brothers and sisters, who love one another.
A young girl of sixteen, with wings on her feet,
dreaming that soon now a lover she'll meet.
A bride soon at twenty-my heart gives a leap,
remembering the vows that I promised to keep.
At twenty-five now, I have young of my own
who need me to guide and a secure happy home.
A woman of thirty, my young now grown fast,
bound to each other with ties that should last.
At forty my young sons have grown and are gone,
but my man's beside me to see I don't mourn.
At fifty once more babies play round my knee,
again we know children, my loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me, my husband is dead;
I look at the future, I shudder with dread.....
For my young are all rearing young of their own,
and I think of the years and the love that I've known.
I'm now an old woman and nature is cruel;
'tis jest to make old age look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles, grace and vigour depart,
there is now a stone where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass a young girl still dwells,
and now and again my battered heart swells.
I remember the joys, I remember the pain,
and I'm loving and living life over again.
I think of the years; all too few, gone too fast,
and accept the stark fact that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, nursie, open and see,
not a crabby old woman; look closer - see ME!!