Sunday, 2 July 2017

A stroll down a Welsh memory lane

In June 1984 I left Wales to start a new life in the North West of England, Manchester to be precise. I have been here ever since. I had trained as a nurse in Swansea, but lived in a little village called Pumpsaint, some 40 miles away. In those days the hour long journey was through the Welsh hills and valleys almost until you got to Swansea. Most of the time this was a journey that helped prepare me for the day, or provided time and space at the end of the day when coming home.

I had a little small holding in Pumpsaint, keeping a herd of milking goats, a small flock of Jacob sheep, chickens, ducks, geese, and even peafowl. I grew all the family vegetables, made goats cheese, brewed beer and wine and baked homemade bread. I fattened turkeys to sell at Christmas, and worked in the forest cutting down Christmas trees to sell. Four of my 5 children were born there, learning Welsh in a small village School. For a short period after gaining my qualification as a nurse and starting to practice I worked in a local agricultural blacksmiths, a place where the work included shoeing horses to repairing huge bulldozer blades and everything in between.

I eventually went back to work as a nurse in the local hospital, Allt-Y-Mynydd. This was a small hospital for people with learning disabilities, and it was a great time to be working in this area. At a policy level, the all Wales community care initiative was being enacted and this was aimed at moving all of the people receiving care for learning disabilities into assisted independent, community based care environments.

Allt-Y-Mynydd hospital was an old sanatorium, perched on top of a hill in the midst of the Brechfa forest. The hospital was just outside a village called Llanbydder, famous for its horse fairs, and where once there was a connection to the Manchester and Milford Railway! I joined as a staff nurse, but quickly gained promotion as Charge Nurse, an achievement marked by my not having the Learning Disability qualification, and only being on the register as Mental Health Nurse. However, I had an absolute conviction that we could carry out the policy and make a difference to the lives of the residents. 

Allt-Y-Mnynydd Hopsital is still there, now a tastefully modernised care home, and almost unrecognisable in terms of the facilities and the care provided. During my time in the hospital we very successfully prepared, moved and supported most of the residents out in to local community based homes. I was reminded of these memories as last week was Learning Disability week, 2017. There are some 1.4 million people with a learning disability in the UK, nearly 200,000 of whom, are children of school age.

Whilst it was great to hear so many very positive stories about learning disability services and in particular social care services, last week also saw the publication of a report on research undertaken by researchers at the University of Lancaster. It has a snappy title ‘A Trade in People: The inpatient healthcare economy for people with learning disabilities and/or Autism Spectrum Disorder’, but the findings were rather grim. It found that many people with learning disabilities had become commodities in a health care industry driven by profits. It seems the UK government spent some £477m last year on keeping just 2500 people in hospital with more than 50% of these beds being provided by the private sector. It is a trend that is growing. 

The consequence of this approach is that often individuals can be placed in geographical locations many miles away from their family home with families facing long and expensive journeys in order to maintain contact with their son or daughter. Sadly, those detained in private care services are also more likely to experience an assault and be restrained compared to those receiving care in a NHS unit. The report also found that that the cost of a care package (similar to those we put in place all those years ago in Wales) to move people back into their community could be prohibitively expensive for local authorities to contemplate – thus perpetuating the problem. It is such a sad indictment that some 33 years after my time in Wales we are still treating people in this way.