Stretching the horizons of our humanity: creativity and care

1 June 2022
By Dr Donald Macaskill CEO Scottish Care

There are over 200,000 people working in social care services every day across Scotland and I suspect if you were to ask most of them, they would not describe themselves as artists or painters or dancers or poets or storytellers. Indeed, most would not see the tasks and functions of care and support which they do so well and with so much compassion and dignity as in any sense creative. And yet I would suggest theirs is a profoundly creative task and role. I believe care and support for another person to be itself an inherently creative endeavour and it is enhanced when we access the resources available to us to deepen and enrich our roles as carers.  

I make such a statement on the premise that social care itself is inescapably about creativity and that those who do it well help and enable individuals to themselves grow in creativity and expression. Social care is often narrowed down to a functionalist, time, and task approach but of course anyone involved in the sector knows that to be wholly untrue. The best social care isn’t about maintaining an individual in safety and health alone, in the way they are, but rather it is about providing the structures and supports to allow that person to grow, to be independent, to flourish and to achieve their dreams, whether as a child, someone with disabilities or mental health challenges, as an older person or someone in the last days of life.  

Social care is about stretching the horizons of our humanity and enabling every person to achieve to their fullest potential. And if that is not itself creative, and if that does not necessitate us all being in touch with a creative dimension, I simply do not know what is.  

It used to be held – certainly when I started working in the sector – that the arts and creative fields were an added extra, a luxury available only when all other key tasks and functions were completed. And yes, when compared to the importance of essential pharmaceutical intervention, or healthy diet and nutrition, or managing distress in the life of someone living with dementia – then the arts may indeed play a secondary role, but I know even in those specific areas the arts and the creative sector still have an immense contribution to make. 

It also used to be that we looked at the arts and wider creativity solely through the lens of performance and entertainment. Whilst performance still has a valuable and valid role I would suggest that the very essence of social care itself is not just about doing to but working with, not the expert caring for the client, but a dynamic of mutuality and shared support. Thankfully we have moved a long way from the transactional approach to the creative arts in social care, of doing to and for folks, and are much more familiar with the risky spaces and places of relationship building and shared creativity. There is nothing more resource rich when trying to foster relationships and deal with challenging situations than our use of the creative arts.  

I can recall many such instances. One was during a time when working with a group of older individuals in a care home who were struggling with mental health concerns especially around ageing, grief and dying, I developed a session called ‘Death at the Movies’ during which we explored some really challenging issues through the medium of film and theatrical performance. A group of taciturn folks who had been unwilling to open up about their fears and concerns in straight conversation and interaction, found their voice through theatre and film; they were able to share and talk frankly because of a sense of permission and space given to them by watching a movie. 

Donald Macaskill addressed the first Scottish Care Home conference since the pandemic in April this year.

The ability brought about by using all the creative sciences and artistic contributions is that it helps to stretch us beyond the comfortable and known into spaces and places where we have never been and of which we may have previously been fearful.  

It gives us another language with which to explore our living and loving in company and in community with others, perhaps especially where there are differences and disagreement. It offers us a set of tools and models which allow us to be comfortable in the rawness of human emotion sharing. It enables us to use all our senses in an enlivening and holistic manner. 

The value of the arts comes at points of joy and pain, in silence and in sound, in vibrant colour and melancholic monotone – I have seen people flourish through re-discovering dance whilst living with advanced dementia; recovering from trauma by the power of oil and canvas; shattering their locked in silence by sounds of musical intensity. The challenge for us all is to enable these places and spaces to happen, and to empower everyone involved in social care to be open to the imagination of possibility.  

Every carer has the potential to be an artist – the role of professionals and groups like Luminate is to resource and enrich, train, and develop, skill and empower, so that all might untap their potential and discover their muse.  

But at the end of the day the creative form has its own magical intensity about it and it is one which can never be simply cajoled and structured. The best moments are those when the sound or image, the movement or touch, shatters our expectations and takes us beyond our limitations to a new place where we learn to be fully human, both carer and supported person. And that is surely both the power and critical importance of the arts especially in social care.