When I first joined Local Government Margaret Thatcher had just taken up residence at No 10, strikes were the norm and punk had all but blown itself out. Even in those turbulent times I was aware what lurked behind the doors of the town hall was a parallel universe that presented me with something I had no idea existed. The fact I survived the paperwork, the constantly changing policies, and a lack of common sense that left normal people speechless says two things. One I must have some belief what I was doing really made a difference and two despite my best efforts I spent hours banging my head against the brick wall of the establishment without making the slightest dent.
When I finally escaped and I don’t use that word advisedly, life was hard to cope with for a while but just as I was finding my feet in the real world I was cast straight back into the land of make believe which was the Alzheimer’s Society Essex. Now at this point I must make a disclaimer whats to come only relates to Essex unless mentioned as fairly I didn’t work in other areas of the country so can’t speak with any authority about them.
As you read in part three my crash course in dementia started with being in charge of an entire activity group for a day on one leg and quickly progressed to having carers cry on my shoulder and volunteers questioning I had any idea what I was doing. Which given my lack of training at that stage was a legitimate enquiry. Gradually I found my feet in a strange world that had me filling in more paperwork than I’d seen in a decade and battling against a computer system that had originally been designed to keep tabs on widget buying customers not manage the needs of people living with dementia. The fact I survived the first six months which culminated in the longest appraisal meeting I’d had in my life (which included my time managing a department of 29 with a £1 million budget) was entirely down to my group leaders who I’m glad to say remain my good friends.
Unfortunately the whole thing came to a rather unseemly head when we received what was called a TQR, which in simple terms was a service audit. I’d been involved in literally hundreds of these over the years and to be fair most times I’d found the auditors knowledgeable about the service often because they were currently or had been involved in the same line of work. It was then to my surprise that an audit team turned up with little idea of what we actually did. What they wanted to see was a trail of paper, a collection of policy folders and the correct policy documents displayed on the wall. What quickly became evident is what they weren’t interested in was the amazing care shown by my volunteers and staff which regularly went way beyond the call of duty. From the day I started until the day I left I’d made it a requirement of myself to find out something about all our group members so I could engage them in conversation. In doing that I heard some amazing stories and had some great laughs. My favourite was the ex-boxer one of 14 children who said ‘I wouldn’t be here if my Mum and Dad had the money to buy a telly!’ My staff members and volunteers did similar but at no point did this vital knowledge appear on an audit sheet. Accordingly despite our best efforts the auditors couldn’t have cared less.
The day I knew my involvement with dementia would have to carry on outside the Alzheimer’s Society was the day I had a stand up row with the head of the audit team. I’m not proud of losing my temper although I still managed to do so in a constructive manner despite huge provocation. The story involved one of our octogenarian group members who was a Type 2 diabetic. In chatting to the audit team this information came out whilst he was eating a biscuit. The auditors suddenly went into a panic when he said he was allowed biscuits at home and demanded I raise an immediate safeguarding report with the County Council. An argument quickly ensued with me saying wouldn’t it be a good idea to get some more information before raising the alarm in response to which I was firmly told ‘ its not our job to investigate we are a reporting organisation!’ My snap reply perhaps wasn’t the best but its still a sentiment I stand by today as I told them ‘Do you not think Social Services have enough to do without worrying about people eating a few biscuits. At one end of the scale you have baby P and at the other a plate of digestives which do you think is the most important?’ Needless to say if I had any intentions of rising up the heirachy they had quickly flown out of the window after that. But as you probably will have guessed a quick conversation with the family revealed the gentleman concerned had recently visited the diabetic nurse and she had informed them that the occasional biscuit was no problem at all.
Unfortunately that was only one example of a risk averse mentality that strangled parts of the service. We did have some victories one Christmas a volunteer penned a panto for some of our group members and they performed it superbly one afternoon in front of their family members. That one strangely escaped the attention of the heirachy mainly because we were very careful not to tell them what we had in mind!
As time went on I must admit the procession of needless meetings began to take its toll. Sitting round a table being asked every two weeks what is your ‘happy news’ and what are your ‘head scratchers’ would try the patience of a saint in my world but there were those who loved the bi-weekly spotlight. Our service was simple every week we entertain 60 people and the great majority leave with smiles on their faces. My ‘head scratcher’ was how as a team we managed to balance the books, but somehow we did.
My decision to leave was greeted very differently by the heirachy and my volunteers, staff and group members. No doubt celebrating the ‘awkward bloke who bucked the system’ setting sail the management did….precisely nothing not even a goodbye. Despite pleading with me to stay my staff, volunteers and group members staged impromptu parties, had me singing Kareoke for the first time ever, gave me presents I will always treasure and made me cry (in a good way).
Unfortunately my experience has turned me away from major charities and from people I speak to I’m not alone in that but on a positive note it did open the door to dementia world and I had no idea where that would lead me…