#Soapbox: Isn’t it time for us to care for our invisible loved ones?

Tim Attwood was elected to Belfast City Council in 2005 and has been Leader of the SDLP Group. He is a member of the Local Commissioning Group, Belfast Strategic Health Partnership for Health and Wellbeing and West Belfast Partnership.

The late Scottish Trade union activist Jimmy Reid argued that the worth of a society should be judged “not by the affluence of the strong or the greedy, but by how it cared for the most defenceless sections of the community, the very young, the very old, the physically or mentally handicapped.”

The impact of welfare reform and changes in social care should be judged on this basis.

The Belfast HSC Trust is currently undertaking a public consultation on the future of Learning Disability Day Services and Mental Health Services in Belfast.

It may result in Fallswater Learning Disability centre in West Belfast being closed and mental health day centres in North and West Belfast closed, with users being asked to travel to a centre in the east of the City.

Too often, carers and their loved ones are invisible, it is vital that we all take the time to listen to the views of the users, carers and staff who may be affected by both consultations.

I have been fortunate to have spent time visiting the users of Fallswater, Mica, Suffolk and Whiterock Day centres in West Belfast and listened to the passionate, courageous but extremely anxious parents, carers and staff who tenderly care and support people with learning disabilities and mental health problems.

Learning Disability Services

In terms of Learning Disability, there are three day centres in West Belfast Fallswater, Mica Drive and Suffolk. Each centre is catering for the unique needs of their users the elderly, the more active and others with varied and complex needs.

The day centres are vital to the users providing social contact and stimulation; reducing isolation and loneliness and maintaining their independence. Equally they provide an important break for carers who look after their loved ones 24/7.

Users and carers are rightly concerned about the closure of Fallswater Day Centre which caters for an older user. The consultation says users will be able to move to other centres, however, it is clear that Suffolk Day Centre is already working at full capacity.

Indeed it is agreed that the building in Suffolk is no longer fit for purpose and the users and staff require a new modern building which provides high quality and customised facilities.

Mental Health Services

Equally the Mental Health Consultation could see the closure of the Everton Complex in the North of the city and Whiterock Day Centre.

It is clear that the mental health consultation is causing serious distress to many of the users who wanted the day centre to remain open in West Belfast.

Users have talked to us of the importance of the centre as a social outlet and to meet other users in the area. One user said the day centre and the support from staff is “a rock in my life”.

It is clear that users will not travel to the adult centre in east Belfast. They want a local service in their community.

Day Opportunities

There is a view from some that day services are out-dated model of service provision that does not fully meet the needs of people with learning disabilities. There is an argument, articulated in the consultations that it is better to personalise day services for each individual user.

There is certainly scope for increasing the personalisation of support within a quality day service setting. However, there is substantial evidence that many users, especially older people, want to stay in local day centres.

The anger of users and carers is growing over plans to close these centres. It is clear that the Belfast Trust is under extreme pressure to make cuts and the casualties will be vulnerable people with learning disabilities and mental health problems.

Correspondence from the BHSCT on 5 November 2015 to Cllr Tim Attwood stated that: ‘Learning Disability Services has a savings target of approximately £3 million for 2015/16’.

The Trust also revealed that: ‘The full year effect savings of the merging of Fallswater with other centres would be approximately £180k as reflected within the Trust’s 2015/16 Savings Plan.’

Steve Goodier said: “Who doesn’t want to know that we notice them and value them? And who might respond to us better when they feel that they matter? It probably cannot be overstated – it matters…that people matter.”

It is our moral and political obligation to show that people with learning disability and mental health issues do matter.

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