issue 12 JANUARY 2000 / BACK
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Roles and relationships in the residential unit

Leonard Davis

Each man, woman or child living in a residential home or school has a number of roles: primarily as resident, but also perhaps as wife, mother, son, daughter or cousin. Staff, too, have roles: primarily as residential workers, but also as parents, brothers, sisters, uncles or aunts. Both will have idealised pictures of the way in which these roles should be carried out. Some roles have been performed adequately in the past; a number may still be competently filled despite heavy odds; and others may have been messed up. In the TV adaptation of Roots Alex Haley speaks for some residents: “I could set down the last word on failure – as son, as father, as writer." Residents may experience their role failure in both family and work (or school) with a depth of feeling equal to that shown by Alex Haley. For some, the chance to correct their mistakes, to try again, may be long past.

I remember the five-year-old Anderson twins, Christine and Charlotte, and their older brother James. Christine and Charlotte lived in one house unit, while 12-year-old James was in the boys' unit on the other side of the campus. Mrs Anderson was a voluntary patient in a nearby mental hospital and Mr Anderson (the father of James but not of Christine and Charlotte) stayed whenever possible in Salvation Army hostels, visiting his family from time to time. James was always ready to protect and defend his sisters, and brought them small gifts nearly every week. This was a desperate group of people, with different needs and expectations, held together by a great deal of affection, and trying to sustain the family roles, yet prevented by the geographical distance which separated some of them; by their earlier lack of success in coping as a family; and, in the case of the adults, by the unpredictable nature of their behaviour.

Neither the mental hospital nor the children's home provided consistent opportunities for the Anderson family to engage for any worthwhile period in their various roles. Often when she visited on Saturday afternoons, Mrs Anderson appeared vague and listless. Yet, for hours she would sit quietly with Christine and Charlotte by her side, combing their hair and working at the 'corn row' (or cane row) plaiting in the ancient African style. In this aspect of her maternal role, Mrs Anderson remained in command. No members of staff had the skill to care for her children's hair in such a traditional way. They relied on her weekly visit.

Visitors and residents
The role of visitor is not easy, and we often underestimate the difficulties faced by relatives or friends when visiting children or adults in residential establishments. In many cases they are really confronted with the question “What do you say after you've said Hello?" It is unnatural for some people to sit formally for an hour or so, perhaps in a tiny interview room, or in a massive lounge with a crowd of other people. It may seem strange to discuss very personal matters in a vacuum and away from the cut and thrust of their day-to-day shared environment and common experiences.

The role of resident is equally difficult. Most establishments have a closer definition of the “good" resident than they would care to admit.

One problem for the newly admitted resident must be having to “ask permission" for things which only a few weeks or days before he may have had entirely within his own control: about going out, about coming in, about making a telephone call, about smoking or about inviting a friend into the bedroom.

Staff roles
As residential workers (and to ensure that residents do match up to the expectations of the establishment) staff have to remain within their role, observing, anticipating, asserting their authority and, in some instances, demanding conformity. If residents step too far out of their role, they may find themselves labelled by the staff as “awkward". When members of the staff appear to be moving out of their role, they will quickly be pulled back into line by colleagues, and if persistent in breaking the recognised (but often unspoken) codes, they may become isolated or even scapegoated. The role differences between staff and residents are accentuated in various ways, for example by the fact that one group is paid to look after the other; that they may eat in separate places; that staff have keys; that staff may have personal transport and are therefore more mobile; and that staff may have information about the residents which they themselves do not possess. Of course, these role differences are accentuated to varying degrees in different establishments, the range extending from residential schools where the senior staff may have built for themselves God-like roles, to other residential units where role blurring and power sharing are constantly being worked at. Subtle forces keep people in roles, and we should ask ourselves the question: To what extent do roles impede the development of relationships?

Residential homes often place heavy constraints on the emergence of loving relationships between residents, between staff and residents, and between residents and members of the local community. Indeed, the organisational and physical framework of the home may be designed to prevent such love relationships from arising. On the other hand, in the most mature residential centres, a wide variety of relationships may be encouraged.

Loving and being loved
Unfortunately, not every resident has a family member to whom he or she may relate, and not every resident is able to find and sustain a satisfying relationship with someone outside the home or school. Some residents may be so unattractive, damaged or damaging that, without considerable help, they are unlikely ever to engage in the warm relationships aspired to by most human beings. Yet, as François Truffaut reminds us in his film L'argent de poche, life is so arranged that we cannot do without loving and being loved. Love is often an embarrassing word in residential settings. I cannot remember the last time I heard it used positively in a case conference. The role models demanded of some care givers do not allow love to exist. Fears of “involvement", age-old taboos, and the strong sexual connotations associated with the development of close relationships, serve to keep individuals in check.

Real relationships occur between people, whether family members or not, and not between people acting out roles “although efficient role performance often provides a solid backcloth for a different quality of exchange to take place. I remember a young girl called Susan. How she disliked living with the nuns in a community home! She did everything possible to make them dislike her and reject her. One day when I visited Susan she was in a particularly bad mood, shouting and swearing at Mother “X" because of some alleged injustice. The patient sister turned quietly to Susan, patted her on the head and said: “I love you too, my dear." And she really meant it.

This feature: Social Work Today, 13, 3.

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