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How social care can be the support that enables people to lead fulfilling daily lives

Published: 02 February 2021

Mark Wilberforce is a social care researcher in the Social Policy Research Unit at the University of York and NIHR School for Social Care Research. Here he writes about how he got involved in social care research and offers some advice to other social care researchers.

Social care is one of those terms that means something different to everyone you speak to. To me, it is the support that enables people to lead fulfilling daily lives. Social care research is enquiring into the what, where, why and how of that support. 

There are huge issues across social care that have lots of ideas and energy behind them, but not all that much research. My field is later life social care, so my key question is: “What do I want social care to look like when I get old?”

Getting into social care research

Many social care researchers work in social science faculties and have a social outlook on the causes and solutions to common problems. This might involve nuanced differences when it comes to the research methods used and what constitutes evidence, since the social care sphere makes some approaches - such as controlled experiments - more challenging than in health or medicine, and others even richer - such as ethnography. 

I don’t think there are any special requirements that social care researchers need. A PhD helps, but many social care researchers don’t have one, and many others have PhDs in quite diverse fields, whether social work, sociology, social policy, disability studies, economics, criminology, geography or many others. There is an important place for social care practitioners and service users in social care research, and crossing that bridge is something that is being encouraged more and more.

I trained as an economist, then worked for the Department of Health and Social Care. From there I entered academia to work on a randomised trial examining the benefits of personal budgets in social care, where service users receive control of the purse strings to purchase their own care. I had no knowledge of social care – I was just a generic, ‘jack-of-all-trades’ analyst. I went on to receive funding for a PhD in social care research through an NIHR Fellowship.

Specialist mental health support work

In my current role in the Social Policy Research Unit at the University of York and NIHR School for Social Care Research, I specialise in social care research around home support in later life, particularly for those living with dementia. At the moment, I’m looking at how best to help older people who are not engaging well with social care at home, especially where a mental health problem is a factor. 

It’s very easy to forget how social care at home can feel like an unwelcome invasion, into your home and into your own personal space. Some people with dementia or other psychiatric difficulties will refuse or avoid the help. Yet without that help, their needs can grow, causing chronic self-neglect or crisis for family carers. Often people end up in hospital, or in residential care. Our research team is looking at how specialist mental health support work can help build a bridge to social care, and prevent the problems from escalating.

My experience of the funding process

It’s exciting putting together a funding bid, like working out a jigsaw puzzle and seeing if you can get all the pieces to fit into a nice, clear picture. The process is long, though, and takes a lot of energy and motivation. I often wonder how many half-written bids are never submitted because the lead applicant ran out of steam. It works best where you can bring together a genuinely interested team of applicants all pulling in the same direction.

Seeing some of the different projects being funded by the NIHR Research for Social Care (RfSC) call has helped me to see the diversity of social care research. If I was to offer some advice to researchers who are wanting to apply to this call, it would be to gather a team of co-applicants who are genuinely interested in being part of the study, and not just a team of convenience where they have the ‘name’ or ‘title’ to go on the application. Try to speak to existing award-holders: most love talking about their funding successes!

Facing the challenges within social care research

There is a small pool of social care researchers relative to the strain and pressures the social care system faces – this is an opportunity and challenge in equal measure. The more disciplines we can draw together to tackle these problems, the greater chance we have to answer pressing questions. Bringing together communities of social care researchers will help collaboration and share emerging ideas. 

Mark Wilberforce, a social care researcher in the Social Policy Research Unit at the University of York and NIHR School for Social Care Research

The Research for Social Care (RfSC) call is an annual competition specifically for social care proposals, run by NIHR’s Research for Patient Benefit (RfPB) programme.

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