As a researcher, you often have to draw upon different kinds of knowledge and try to knit them together. Currently, I am a full-time PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University, where I am studying how the field of Arts in Health is being shaped by ‘devolution’. Local contexts increasingly offer different types of intervention for people who have received a diagnosis of dementia. While some areas offer bespoke support and information others do not (as the forthcoming report I am writing on one of Dementia Connect’s schemes, Drawing on Strengths, will seek to demonstrate). It’s a patchy and uneven picture.

Speaking from more personal experience, I understand that the kinds of support currently offered by Mersey Care, through an eight week course, would have been timely to receive, over twenty years ago now, when my own mother was given a diagnosis of vascular dementia. The visiting health professional drew two little worms with a pencil on the back of an envelope to show how synapses worked, gave a leaflet on the illness, then left.

We were left to ponder the implications of this news alone, with little help from any outside body, save for the two little worms, whose meanings weren’t altogether clear in terms of how they might help my mum continue to live as a human-being, rather than as a series of (dis)connections in the brain. Social assets weren’t explicitly mentioned by her social worker either, as I recall, although enquiries were later made about savings, as costs, service-providers and dependencies all increased. I then began to morph from being a daughter into also becoming an informal advocate for my mum, a Project Manager who dealt with a wide range of professionals, learning their systems and languages. Sometimes this felt like a battle, as these systems often didn’t fit ours, or ran counter to what would have ‘helped’.

The term ‘social assets’ has gained common use in public health policy over recent decades. While it draws on the language of economics – and can indeed include measurements of financial resource – it also seeks to recognise broader psycho social resources, such as family, friendship networks and education. This concept of ‘social assets’ is most commonly used in relation to preventative health measures, cited as a way of highlighting the positive resources at people’s disposal which allow them to stay well.

Psycho-social assets are often harder to quantify, measure or even name and can include such things as: self-esteem, confidence, purposefulness, knowledge and skills, resourcefulness and resilience. Creative interventions may offer a way of making visible these more elusive factors in well-being, providing person-centred methodologies that are better suited to capturing human value over more (bureaucratic) forms of data gathering.

As things turned out, my mum was relatively fortunate. She had my dad and enough money to pay for a range of home help. Other ‘social assets’ included their home, a lovely garden to look out onto, good neighbours and a large circle of friends. (One of the best predictors for good care, I later learn, is having a daughter.) They both continued to listen to the music they always enjoyed, despite all the cd’s being shuffled in the wrong cases. Being Welsh remained important to them too, as the place they came from, a cultural identity that went beyond how they thought and felt about any single book, painting or piece of music.

Knowing how much these (cultural) resources really do ‘count’ provided some of the impetus for Drawing on Strengths, which seeks make translations between the language of health professionals and the subjective knowledges through which patients experience these often, very alien, terms and concepts. Artist Kate Eggleston-Wirtz worked with people with dementia, based within Mersey Care, to draw on their strengths as part of a pilot workshop, the outcomes from which will also be included in the forthcoming report.

The hope here is that different kinds of knowledge might be shared between those whose job it is to care, alongside those who are cared for, in a more equitable way. The pilot project will test if and how the co-production of knowledge around ‘social assets’ can be facilitated through creative practices, exploring to what extent knowing gained ‘from the inside’ can be understood by those ‘on the outside’ too.

Frances Williams (Drawing on Strengths Creative Voucher)

What are (your) ‘social assets’?
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