Last rights

26 07 2013


We are living in a social age. Never before have we had so many opportunities to connect with others. Daily through an ever-increasing range of media people enjoy making links. Even something as inconsequential as ticking a ‘like’ box is a show of approval, a tiny endorsement. A smiley face at the end of a directive email can act as a small encouraging cheer to help to brighten the trawl through the imperative inbox.

We are good at the social niceties. The sparkle dust of social media can be sprinkled around quite liberally, and it makes us feel as if we are in touch with each other. Social media taps into our innate need for connectivity, and simultaneously gets us off the hook of really taking the time and trouble to actually be with someone.

I’m not attacking social media. Blogs are a wonderful way of reaching out to people around the world, and I feel a thrill each time I discover a new reader in India or Iceland. Social media is part of the new world we have created, and it is going to take a while before we really understand the best ways to use it. For now, it still feels to me a little like a delightful new toy that we are slightly obsessed with – the old favourites: hand-written letters filled with news; calling each other for hours on the phone; long lunches that become supper, maybe they will make a comeback once we’ve had our digital fill.

This week as preparation for a series of social philosophy seminars I’ve been reading Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, the follow up book to Emotional Intelligence. As is often the case with books that make me think differently, I’ve noticed its central theme cropping up everywhere.

According to Goleman’s research, ‘neuroscience has discovered that our brain’s very design makes it sociable, inexorably drawn into an intimate brain-to-brain linkup whenever we engage with another person. That neural bridge lets us affect the brain – and so the body – of everyone we interact with, just as they do us.’

In other words: we are always affected by other people, for good and for bad. Intuitively we know this. There are people who nourish us just with their presence, and people who bring on an anxious knot in the pit of our stomach. There are conversations that leave us feeling enlivened and valued and those that bring us down and leave us feeling worthless. There are touches that help us to soften and touches that cause us to bristle.

It is clear that we know how to be sociable- we can’t help it, being sociable is a large part of what makes us human – what matters more, though, is an attention to the quality of our social interactions. Of course this has wide implications, especially when it comes to caring for each other. It is not enough to build hospitals and fill them with patients and care staff. It is not enough to design care pathways, as the case in Liverpool has shown. Staff won’t care about their patients unless they feel a connection with them. If patients are presented to staff as out-of-date commodities on the conveyor belt of life they will be treated without respect, denied basic needs such as a sip of water to moisten parched mouths or fruit to take away the gnawing hunger pains. One man spoke of his father, a victim of such ‘care’ as looking like ‘someone out of a concentration camp.’

The question, as I see it, is not how can we get staff that look after the dying to care more, but how can we get them to connect with the other human beings around them? There should be daily reminders in all care homes that the most important thing you can give to someone is not your rushed efficiency, but your time and your attention, not your detachment, but your engagement.

Poignantly, the other evening I was given a lesson in taking the time to care by a group of horses. As intensely social animals, horses develop strong bonds with each other and help each other out. During these hot days my two horses will stand nose to tail, flicking flies from each other’s faces, or one will position himself so as to shade the other. They will eat from the same feed bowl and share a stable. In the paddock next to us is an ancient horse of forty or more, who has bonded with them, and comes into graze with them sometimes.

It is rare for horses to reach forty and the thin old horse is at the end of his life. He is half blind and deaf and unsteady on his legs. Some days when he gets down on the ground to roll, he groans deeply, and his head droops between his splayed legs. More than once I have stopped whatever I’ve been doing, convinced that I’m about to witness his last moments.

The old horse has appreciated the social time with his new young friends and when he returns to his paddock, he is more rested and a wonderful sense of peace passes through the whole herd. The other evening one of my horses spent a good forty minutes gently grooming the old horse, nuzzling and licking his poor old ribs with such tenderness it brought tears to my eyes. The reverence shown to that old horse was joyful to watch. When he returned to his paddock, he felt so light he was almost weightless. Instead of his usual deep groans, he gave a long relieved sigh.

If it is so natural for other social species to care for their elderly, why I wonder is it so difficult for us?



2 responses

20 11 2013

Maybe attitudes to the elderly are more society than species related.
I think that English society for instance has become markedly more self-centred, now-oriented and intolerant of personal inconvenience in recent years. This encourages us to value others for their immediate usefulness rather than their past contributions. That sets up a competition that the elderly can seldom win.


20 11 2013

Thanks for your comment. I agree that it is the attitudes within society that determine how we look after our elderly. Our British attitude to the elderly population does seem at times rather callous, but I suspect it is a minority who really don’t care. The people I know build their lives around caring for their elderly parents and consider it a return for years of contribution. I’d be interested to hear how other cultures compare with Britain.


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