Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Putting people at the heart of care

We hear a lot in the news about ‘health’ care and ‘social’ care. But the debates that take place are often made in response to political changes and legislation; I would suggest we are in danger of losing sight of what ‘care’ people really need when they are ill or dying.

Hospices, like many other charities, put the person and their family at the heart of the care they give. When a person has a life-threatening illness and is facing the end of their life, it is crucial they are treated as an individual, not a diagnosis.

National proposals seem to give a much higher priority to caring for people in relation to their illness and their medical needs and a much lower priority to someone’s everyday or ‘social’ needs.

Everyday needs include getting washed and dressed and eating and drinking, as well as other day to day challenges that can make someone feel they are losing their dignity or who they are as a person.

It is holding on to who you really are that is so crucial when you are dying; your relationship with your partner, your family, friends and even your pets. The things that one did so easily when well, like shopping, gardening, ironing or walking the dog suddenly seem insurmountable and a burden when you are ill and can be a painful reminder of the change an illness has brought about.

What national documents and guidelines so often ignore is that people still need to do the shopping and think about their daily lives in order to manage their death well. We should not define people by their illness. Instead we need to recognise that people have lives in their own communities that are still an important part of their needs (their pets, gardens, the lives and interests that inform their character).

Good social and practical care can make such a difference to a person and their family: Meeting their everyday needs can mean that they can manage the demands of an illness, reduce the burden on families who are caring and can event prevent unwanted hospital admissions.

We are fortunate at St Nicholas Hospice Care to have more than 100 volunteers who have come forward to help people with life-threatening illnesses. Hospice Neighbours service is volunteer-led and works alongside doctors and nurses helping people in their own community.

Hospice Neighbours help with everyday chores such as walking the dog, picking up prescriptions, returning library books, mowing the lawn or sharing a cup of tea. It is about neighbourliness, community and companionship. More than 150 people across West Suffolk and Thetford have benefitted from having a hospice neighbour since the scheme began just over a year ago.

Changes in government funding for social care will have huge implications for all of us as society gets older, the need for care continues to grow and more of us worry about how to pay for it. Whilst we must make sure that the government uses our money wisely and fairly for us all, Hospice Neighbours reminds us that that caring is not just about a financial transaction; it is about people in their communities giving wonderful acts of kindness to others.

Hospice Neighbours are an inspiration to us all and remind us that, whilst at a national level the care system seems intent on reducing people to a price tag, the true human value of caring for each other in times of need is indeed priceless.

My comments were published in East Anglian Daily Times Health Supplement on 14 June 2012