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What use am I to anyone?

May 2 2016

By Claire Tomkinson, Vice-Chair of Timebanking UK

I’m going to start this blog by talking about assets in the NHS. I’ve recently left my previous role in Housing after three years to return to the voluntary sector- and terms like “asset management” and “housing assets” were things that I heard a lot. Generally they were referring to buildings, properties, community centres and open spaces and I’m guessing that it is a similar situation in the NHS. Hospitals, Health Centres and GP Surgeries will all be listed as “health assets” and these are certainly important, but I think it would be much more valuable and interesting to have a totally different conversation and start to recognise that in the NHS the biggest assets are the people. It’s a cliché to say that an organisation’s “biggest assets are its people” (of course they are: organisations are made of people!) but we usually mean its staff. I think the biggest hidden asset in the NHS is the people who are using services.

At the moment our healthcare system is designed to define people by their problems, issues, deficits and health conditions. People are constantly asked what is the matter, what help do you need and how can we fix you? It’s the pride of the NHS that people want to help but is it always the right kind of help? In an organisation so complex and under pressure to be efficient, it’s easy for people to become the passive recipients of help and services without ever being asked how they can contribute and what they could give in return. Some people might object to this idea – as taxpayers they may feel they have already given with the expectation of getting what they need when they need it. What I’m talking about is that we miss an important part of the relationship if we forget that people generally like to give something back in return and like to feel that they have something to contribute.

If you are constantly defining people by what they lack or need, it’s not difficult for people to lose sense of what they have to give.

                                                                                                                                                                                        Edgar Cahn (founder of Timebanking)

Timebanking builds on people’s strengths and recognises that everyone in a community has something to offer, including those who are often defined as “disadvantaged” or “vulnerable” – defining them by what they don’t have or can’t do rather than what they can. The principle behind Timebanking is that everyone is an asset with something to exchange and everyone’s time and skills are valued equally.

If you’ve heard about it at all, what you’ve probably heard about Timebanking is all about the process: people doing things for each other with an expectation that they will be able to get something equivalent in return. But the process of Timebanking is just about putting some really powerful ideas into operation. By focusing on what people can do – their “assets” or their “natural wealth” – this kind of approach can help some the most excluded members of our communities feel a sense of self-worth and belonging. The principle that an hour is equally valuable to every human being and everybody has something to give is what lies behind that. It’s a beautifully positive message at the most basic level of humanity: your time is as valuable as everybody else’s.

Timebanks are a great means of building social networks of people who give and receive support from each other, enabling people from different backgrounds who wouldn’t otherwise meet, to come together and form connections and friendships. Generating social capital in this way can be an important determinant of health, wellbeing and resilience, all of which can prevent needs arising.  

“People who love Timebanking are driven by a sense of injustice because we think that it is fundamentally wrong not to value people” 

                                                                                                                                                                                      Edgar Cahn

Last year I was asked to attend a local luncheon club to talk to a group of older people who accessed the service about Timebanking. Here I met Mary, a lady in her seventies that was interested in joining the Timebank because she had some trousers and a skirt that she wanted altering. I was explaining that reciprocity was an important part of Timebanking and that it is based on an equal exchange of time when Mary gestured towards her right arm and said

Claire, I had a stroke seven years ago and it’s taken me that long to learn how to dry my hair and cook some meals with only one hand. What use am I to anyone?

You can tell that she’s asking the question because she’s already made up her mind about the answer. But read it again and see if you can spot the incredibly valuable thing she was telling me without realising it.

I asked Mary how she would have found meeting someone like her seven years ago when she first had her stroke and was feeling so lost and frightened. She had seven years experience of recovery and learning new ways to cope with her changed circumstances. Mary’s face and entire body language started to change as I explained that she could share talking about her experiences with others in a similar situation and in return another local person would alter some clothes that she was no longer able to do herself and couldn’t afford to take anywhere. She was excited and thrilled.

Imagine what care would be like if we actually valued people like Mary and the contributions that they are still able to make: not “valued” in an abstract way but in a very practical sense. Sadly Mary passed away suddenly just before we could return her altered clothes, but even then, the message she heard was more important: it gave her back some dignity. She didn’t spend her final days believing that she was no use to anyone. My aim is to share the benefits of the Timebanking approach and the undervalued role that people play in healthcare so that no one else has to ask “what use am I to anyone?”  


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