Podcast Episode: Freshly Squeezed: Donald Macaskill
Category: Freshly Squeezed
What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.
MD - Michelle Drumm
DM - Dr Donald Macaskill
MD Hello and welcome to Freshly Squeezed, an Iriss Podcast which aims to squeeze information and inspiration from key influencers in social services in Scotland. Today I’m speaking to Dr Donald Macaskill, Donald has worked for many years in the health and social care sectors across the UK specialising in learning disability and older people’s work. A particular professional focus has been issues related to bereavement, palliative care and individual rights. For thirteen years he ran his own equality and human rights consultancy focusing on adult protection, risk and personalisation. From 2012-2015 he managed Scottish Care’s self-directed support project, People as Partners, then worked as Scottish Care’s Joint National Workforce Lead. From 1st April 2016 he became the CEO of Scottish Care, the representative body for care providers in the independent sector. Donald, welcome to Freshly Squeezed.
DM Thank you.
MD So, you’re quite a strong voice in the world of adult social care and now heading up Scottish Care, the representative body in the independent sector. Can you tell me, did you always want to work in social services?
DM Not really and this whole process of Freshly Squeezed has helped me to reflect a little bit. It’s not that I fell into social care by accident because I think that would suggest a lack of direction in my life, but it is true to say that I didn’t start out with the intention of ending up doing the job that I’m doing.
MD So tell me a little bit more about that?
DM Okay so, I went to university initially actually to study Theology and I studied Theology and I studied Classics, Arts and History so, I had an interest in issues of personhood and identity and I then went into academia for a brief period of time into teaching: worked in a higher education institution but was always concerned with particularly the degree to which people who had had a negative experience of education were alienated from opportunities so, most of my work in higher education was with people who were detached and distant from education. For instance in the prison system, individuals who had lives which were best described as chaotic and then over a period of time I got more and more involved and interested in issues to do with counselling: worked for a time in a palliative care environment, went back did some more training in counselling and in psychology and indeed did a doctorate broadly in the areas of psychology and sociology and then wind time on a little bit more, I ended up working for a health a social care national organisation and then ran a learning disability project in Glasgow and I’ve always been extremely interested in issues of learning disability, particularly for individuals who for some reason or other have been labelled as having behaviour which challenges. And then as you indicated I set up my own human rights and equality consultancy and most of that work was outside Scotland, both in England and in Europe and indeed in North America. I don’t know what it is about people who talk about human rights and equality, they don’t often feel welcome or valued in their own midden, as it were. So, that work eventually led me to do some work with Scottish Care and through guilt and association I ended up being appointed the Chief Executive, now a couple of years ago. So, it’s a torturous, complicated, confused route but with common strands throughout.
MD No, absolutely and with kind of human rights underpinning a lot of it as well.
DM Absolutely and I have no interest in being trained to be a lawyer, I probably shouldn’t say this but, I spend too much of my time in the company of human rights legal specialists. What interests me about human rights is that dynamic of what it means to be human, particularly for those who have had their rights diminished or removed which is easy to recognise in places out with Scotland but it becomes more challenging when you start talking about a diminution and a loss of human rights for people who ostensibly on the surface are protected by law and by statutory and other structures so, for me the interesting piece of work is advocating for and on behalf of those whose rights are being diminished or are diminished within a Scottish and a UK context.
One of the benefits of doing Theology is that it gives you a broader world view and it teaches you tools of critical questioning and analysis which might seem antithetical to many individuals who haven’t done that discipline but it does really force you to question absolutely everything and I suppose at my irritating worst that’s what annoys people, that I simply wouldn’t accept things as they are given, I always want to know why that is the case and you know I’ve got a 4 year old daughter who’s clearly inherited that annoying ability.
MD I think most 4 year olds have probably that ability, don’t they?
MD Okay so, other than an alarm clock in the morning Donald, what gets you out of bed?
DM The 4 year old who I’ve just mentioned. It’s not often voluntarily a rise in the morning. Last night was a case in point, up at 3 points during the night, and eventually up fully at 6 o’clock so, thankfully I’m not somebody who needs a huge amount of sleep though as I get older that might … and is changing but no, she get’s me up in the morning and that’s probably true metaphorically as well as physically in that I am somebody who does enjoy my work, I have a sense of enthusiasm which gives me energy to do it and that I suppose makes me lucky cos I know that there are plenty people for whom their daily work is a grind but for me, my work is what gets me up in the morning and wanting to make the sort of difference which I think the role I have enables me to try to achieve.
MD And do you have a typical day then?
DM Absolutely not, I not only don’t have a typical day, I don’t have a typical week and that actually is what’s really enjoyable. One of the things I could never do would be to do the same thing absolutely every day of the week so, because Scottish Care is a membership organisation representing older peoples, care providers and that includes voluntary charitable and private organisations, we’re working as an organisation across a broad port folio so, I go to a lot of meetings and I speak at a lot of events but I also hopefully spend sufficient time out there speaking to people who are residents in care homes, people who work in home care organisations, individuals who manage at strategic governmental local authority integrated joint board levels so, every day is different. Some days I might be, you know so, if I take a day a couple of weeks ago, it started off with me supporting an organisation who were recruiting a new member of staff and because I have a particular knowledge of bereavement that was appropriate in that context it then led to me speaking at a conference which was on how it’s important that we don’t get complacent about human rights simply because it appears on the surface that in Scotland in social services and in social care, we have human rights embedded in practice and in policy and then I went on to grab a train, I have an interesting relationship with the Scotrail in Scotland, I took a train to another location in which I was meeting colleagues to discuss a project on dementia so, that’s a fairly typical day covering a whole range of topics and issues.
MD What’s your motto for life, Donald?
DM I suppose probably my motto for life has changed over the years but if it’s anything, it is something that somebody told or said to me a few years ago which is: only you are able to write your own story, only you can paint the picture you want others to see and only you can play and create that piece of music which you want others to hear. So, when you strip all that away, I suppose my motto is, I’m the only person who can live my life and make the difference I want to make and unless I do that then I’m not fulfilling either my potential or the sense in which I do believe everybody has a contribution to make and it’s significance is individual to that person but we must all be enabled to make that contribution and we must all be encouraged to do so. So, that would be my motto, I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.
MD Uh huh. Yeah, you’re quite well read.
DM Oh, oh.
MD What book or blog would you recommend to listeners?
DM I found this really difficult because I have a very eclectic range of interests but I suppose the book which has stayed with me for many years is a book called Twelve Month and a Day, and it’s ostensibly a novel but it’s written in the most beautiful prosaic poetry that I’ve come across in many years and it’s written by a guy called Christopher Rush and it’s set in the East Neuk of Fife and tells the story of the comings and departing’s of a community and of a family as it changes through the years. It’s fascinated with concepts of belonging and what it means to belong to a community that’s changing but also about issues to do with death and dying and you know at one time I was described as Doctor Death, because I am fascinated, for lots of reasons, with the whole issue of life, existence, living a good life and dying a good death and Christopher Rush’s poetic prose beautifully describes the emotions and feelings of one communities addressing of those issues.
MD And I think planning for death in life is actually being increasingly talked about I think currently.
DM Yeah, I mean I suppose if I reflect back on the … I used to work in a hospital environment where I supported parents who had just lost their child or their baby and that was an extremely grounding experience because there is nothing quite like the loss of hope and the shattering of dreams at that very early stage and at that time and we’re talking 3 decades ago, people really didn’t talk about death and loss. I was brought up in a very typical Hebridean culture where death was a fact and a matter of daily living but it’s very normality almost excused people and prevented individuals from really talking about it and I profoundly believe that it’s so important that as a community and as a society we become more confident in talking about death and dying because that adds richness and depth to our living. I do believe, and this is why I think palliative and end of life care is so fundamentally important to our health and social services system, I do believe that we continue to contribute and that we continue to be that person who we are up until the last moments of our life. We’re still giving, we’re still sharing, we’re still enabling of others and it’s our job whether it’s in social care or in clinical care to ensure that people have that chance and I think it’s societies job to start talking more about death and I’, pleased that in the last 5 to 10 years that story has because more common place.
MD I don’t know whether you like music, I’ve been wondering what your music for motivation is?
DM This is extremely easy, the person who has been my musical motivator for many years is Bruce Springsteen and again I’ve got an annoyingly eclectic love of music from medieval plainchant, all the way up to some contemporary music and it’s interesting, you know I mentioned Bruce Springsteen and for me the classics are with the E Street Band and things like Thunder Road or Born in the USA but for me and this is ironic considering I’m fascinated by language and by words and how they can change people and how they can change emotion, for me in music it’s the sound, it’s the rhythm that’s more important than the lyrics and I’m absolutely lousy at remembering lyrics of songs and I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen more times than I’m prepared to publicly confess in multiple countries but I probably would struggle if you were to ask me to give you …
MD The lyrics.
DM … they lyrics of some of his most popular and my favourite pieces of music because for me it’s about the moments, the mood, the emotion that’s created by that music so, Bruce Springsteen does that for me in terms of motivation but there are other pieces of music that speak to me because of their rhythm about different emotions in times of life.
MD Uh huh. So, who or what are your inspirations in your career?
DM I think for me the inspirations have always been people and they’re not people who … I mean okay, I’ve been inspired by certain individuals who have done their job and have represented their organisation or role really well. My predecessor, Ranald Mair, would be one of them in that I probably wouldn’t be where I am today without his bullying, cajoling and encouragement but undoubtedly I am an individual whose been shaped by women in my life starting from a really early years in that I remember as a 5/6/7 year old writing letters to my Hebridean great aunt, ex head teacher whose story I have only over time begun to piece together. A woman who’d lost her husband … who lost her fiance in the first world war, who was a suffragette, who was a trade unionist and yet extremely conservative in many other ways, who wore black in every image that I have of her and yet encouraged children and others to be adventurous in reading, adventurous in imagination and to dream dreams and she probably more than anybody else has been a dominate person and that’s not to say that others, my grandparents, my mother, my father, have not been influential but if I look back at why I’m doing what I’m doing now, it’s because of somebody like my Aunty Effie, but also all the individuals who I’ve been really privileged to have shared some of their most intimate and challenging moments with. Individuals in hospital who’ve just lost their child or they’re in a hospice where a family member has just died or going to a care home and chatting to some of the astonishing individuals who have lived amazing lives and still continue to contribute in the communities in which they live. So, for me when I think of what inspires me to do what I do it is those hundreds of lives and faces, the names of which predominantly I have long since forgotten but the stories of whom I still remember.
MD That’s powerful stuff. So, what one piece of advice would you give to those working or considering working in social services?
DM I know that it’s always and is still a challenge to attract people to come to work in social services in general, particularly social care at the moment and the one piece of advice I would give is that you really have to have a passion because it’s that passion that will get you through the difficult and challenging times. There’s no point in sugar coating a job like a social worker or a social care worker, it’s hard work because it’s at the real heart of what it means to be human and you’re often working and supporting people who are at points and moments of hurt and pain who might react negatively and who might be challenging in their behaviour. To have the strength and the emotional maturity and resilience to keep going is a huge asset, I think we have tens of thousands of astonishingly gifted, committed individuals and I would love society to appreciate them better by rewarding them remuneratively much better. I would love society to recognise that for every bad story that you read of the care that has gone wrong or the worker that has malpractice, there are thousands of others who are going about their business quietly through hard times and good times and who enjoy their work on the whole so, my advise would be: don’t consider social services as a career unless you have that passion for making a difference and for human beings.
MD Okay so, what’s the one thing you couldn’t live without, Donald?
DM Now obviously I’ve got to say the people in my life and that is absolutely true because you know I’ve come from a large family and unfortunately over the years I’ve lost so many of my family and partly that might illustrate why I’m so interested in issues of death and loss and it’s only when you’ve lost people of significance so, I’m a twin and I no longer have my twin.
MD I see.
DM It’s only when you’ve gone through that pain that you really appreciate the people that you have around you so, at a really fundamental level the most important things in my life are the people in my life and that’s through good times and bad but if I was to think of an object I regret to have to say that it is probably my mobile phone. It has become, not so much a friend but such a dominant part of the way in which I relate to the world and it’s not because I use it to talk a lot and it’s not either because I use it to write emails, but I find it … I do quite a lot of writing, I write a fortnightly blog and I do all that writing on my mobile phone. It’s just so convenient to sit down, in a train because I spend so much time on trains, just write and I find it … for me, the aid to creativity rather than a drag but it sometimes it has to be surgically removed from me.
MD Fantastic. Okay, so my final question … this podcast is called Freshly Squeezed, your juice: how do you like it, with juicy bits or smooth?
DM Always smooth.
MD Always smooth? You’re the first smooth.
DM I hate … oh dear! I don’t know …
MD In the series.
DM … what that psychologically says about me.
MD That you’re very smooth.
DM Oh thanks, thanks Michelle. I hate the idea of all those bits sticking in my teeth, I like my drink smooth, unlike my experience of most things.
MD Donald, you’ve been freshly squeezed, thanks for your time today.
DM Thank you Michelle.
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