Brendan Kelly, Managing Director at Heathcotes Group, discusses the importance of the relationship between care workers and the families of those in their care
In assessing the value of high quality care for individuals with learning disabilities and mental health issues, it is often overlooked that the positive impact can extend to their wider family group. Heathcotes were reminded of this when we received a message of thanks from Amanda, the sister of one of our service users.
Her email was written in the context of three family bereavements which happened within a short space of time. During a period of emotional shock and intense grief, Amanda was grateful for the support that our staff provided and she offered some kind words for the services team that cares for her sister Victoria:
“The staff at Heathcotes were there for all of us, and especially Victoria, every step of the way - right from me having the initial conversation with Victoria, and giving her the bad news, to support at the funerals and beyond. Victoria felt like she could talk to the staff about how she was feeling and, more importantly, speak to us about it, so all of us were able to grieve together, something that we could not have done a couple of years before. Staff accompanied Victoria to each funeral and each time the support they showed was obvious. They were also all very considerate to rest of the family, offering condolences and being very respectful. It allowed myself, my husband and brother to grieve and know that Victoria is being well looked after. It meant that we were there for each other at the same time.”
Amanda highlighted this trying time with reference to the preceding period in which Victoria had shown a significant improvement in her own mental wellbeing and her relationship with the family. When Victoria joined us, she was very withdrawn from the family but over time, with encouragement and support, she began to speak with them on the phone more frequently and allow them to visit. Progress eventually led to her visiting the family with her carer and then without. Victoria now stays with her family for one or two nights every few weeks.
That reconnection became even more important when the family suffered tragedy. What struck Heathcotes most was Amanda’s description of how the whole family could grieve together, helped by the fact that Victoria was supported to understand and participate in the process. With those foundations in place, times of adversity or acute emotion often strengthen and renew bonds, but we also believe that carers can help service users and their families to develop their relationship in more commonplace and enjoyable circumstances. Heathcotes’ care support programmes include activities such as a Monthly Walk with Parents in which service user, support worker and family come together for a shared experience.
Enabling that dynamic is part of a holistic approach and a firm belief that, when the responsibility of care passes from the family to professional care provider, we should never view each party in isolation. Time spent in residential care is often a journey towards greater social inclusion and ultimately greater independence - families can be an integral part of this journey but too often they are involved purely as recipients of formal consultation. For many people, and a great many individuals with mental health issues, the relationship with family is inseparable from their emotions and the way they perceive the world. Professional care support can facilitate family interaction to help service users to gain a better understanding of these emotions. That often represents a very significant step in their journey.
Most of us rely on a support network in one form or another. That support network often includes strands of family and friends that interconnect and have relationships with each other as well as with us. From a professional care perspective, there is every incentive to become part of a network rather than an isolated sphere of support. The latter can sometimes reinforce an institutionalised mindset. In contrast, when carers operate in connection with a wider group it can strengthen the relationship with the service user, foster trust and give them the confidence to reach out to a larger social circle.
Heathcotes conduct annual stakeholder feedback surveys which give us an insight into what is valued most by the families of service users. The number one priority is, quite rightly, the standard of care for the service user, but the surveys consistently reveal an appreciation for the support that carers can offer to the families themselves. Small but significant gestures can make a huge difference, whether in times of crisis or more everyday occurrences. In those moments, support workers show that they care in the emotional sense as well the professional sense.
The appreciation is reciprocal – we know that many of our support staff value the words of thanks and acknowledgement that they receive from families, especially when they are unsolicited in circumstances outside the formal consultation process. It’s further motivation for staff to maintain their high standards. The more frequently and openly they communicate with families, the more positive feedback they tend to receive. It can become a virtuous circle.
The email from Amanda went on to describe how the family had eventually moved on from the grieving process. It ended with an upbeat conclusion:
“Despite all that has happened, which would test any of us, Victoria is now such a happy woman, and most days when I speak to her she tells me what a good day she is having, even if she might not have done anything particularly special. She thrives on knowing she has a good support network from the staff and the family.”
To Heathcotes, that final sentence summed it up perfectly. When they come together, professional carers and families can have a positive impact which is greater than the sum of their parts.