I have cared for someone in this situation, and it’s looming on the mid-horizon again, so this question is particularly pertinent for me. But I am struggling to form a response to this that is positive or not defeatist. Leaving aside my first response to this question of being to work to get that person out of the house, and not knowing the reasons behind why this person is housebound, taking this question at face value, here’s my real-life scenario.
My mother lives alone in a small, isolated town in the country. She has some family and friends near her but far from what I would call a developed social or caring network. She is not old, but she is also not in peak health either. She lives on a state pension and benefits and only runs a PAYG mobile (and is hanging on to analogue TV as long as she can), as this is all that she can afford. Come the time when my mother is incapacitated by her health, she may be asking this question of herself. And what would her answer be?
She’s not IT literate so even if I got her a laptop or tablet it would gather dust. So online shopping or chatting is not an option. There is internet in the town, but that’s a 500m walk to the public one in the library, a walk which she struggles to make even now.
There are house-call services she could access through the Council but these are around meeting functional needs, not social or emotional ones. She can get help with taking meds; Meals on Wheels still exists where she lives; her bungalow can be fitted out by occupational therapy; she can get daily help with personal care; mental health self-help books can be posted to her, and the library will drop others to the door; and the doctor is happy to make house calls. Where in this is the meaningful social interaction that would support someone that is housebound?
There isn’t space here to talk of the cuts to local services and the devaluation of the welfare state and the reinvigorated championing of the Big Society as its natural successor, but this is undoubtedly a political issue for designers.
The ‘what can I do?’ for my mother in this scenario is to rely on others for help. The ‘what can we do?’ is a difficult proposition. Difficult for me personally as I wonder if the answer to this question that my family and a conservative society expects is for me to pack up my life and move back to be her carer when the time comes. Difficult for social designers as there is no easy answer to this question and it begs us away from a techno-utopia where Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are fulfilled online; and away too from a social communitarianism based on people with time capacity to help. Not all people – my family included – are time or resource rich to begin to reach out to others in need, especially in a time of an enforced austerity budget of slashing support structures from the ground up, leading to many pulling up the charitable drawbridge to focus on themselves and their immediate own.
My response to this question is to delay the inevitable soul-searching I know I will have to do when the time comes when my mother is incapacitated, and pose this question back to the social designers out there, take the hypothetical out of this question and give you a real scenario to work with.
Cara Courage is an arts and architecture consultant and writer, co-founder/editor of EDGEcondition, LookUp founder and PhD student at University of Brighton, researching grassroots urban arts initiatives and their effect on people and place.