Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Edwin Poots and senior Health Trust officials got more than they bargained for when plans were announced last week to shut four of the five remaining NHS residential care homes in the Western area.
Relatives at several of the care homes affected were vociferous in their opposition but the strongest voices of all have been those of the elderly residents who are determined to stay put. Derry Journal Deputy Editor Bernie Mullen spoke to one of the oldest residents at Greenfield in Strabane, 95-year-old Sara Crawford, who symbolises the ‘grey power’ which forced a change in tactics by those at the top.
Former Strabane businesswoman Sara Crawford sums up the steely determination and resilience of an older generation who may be well advanced in years but perfectly able to give Northern Ireland’s decision-makers a run for their money given the chance.
Mrs Crawford, who ran a shop in Strabane for many years and also worked in an administrative role in one of Derry’s former shirt factories, believes health officials may have under-estimated the power of residents they were planning to ship out to unidentified private care homes.
“They must think we are all in here sleeping”, the sprightly nonagenarian pondered, with a no-nonsense message to Health Minister Edwin Poots that the closure of Strabane’s only residential care home “just wouldn’t work”.
In an extensive interview with the ‘Derry Journal’, Mrs Crawford said Mr Poots should never contemplate closing the “excellent” Greenfield Residential Home which has been part of the fabric of Strabane for many decades.
The 95 year-old, who lived with her only son, Sean, and his family up until November last year, believes the distress and upheaval of forcing residents out of Greenfield against their will, would be the death of them.
“It couldn’t or wouldn’t work and the residents would break their hearts”, she said.
As well as expressing concern for the 22 residents, Mrs Crawford was also concerned for the future of the staff employed at the Home on the town’s Melmount Road.
“What about all the loyal workers? The unemployment offices across the country are bursting at the seams. It would be beyond belief if the staff here were all to lose their jobs. They are all great workers; they wouldn’t waste a minute, they are so dedicated in every way.”
Describing how she felt last Tuesday when the “bombshell” was dropped that the Western Trust was again proposing to close Greenfield, Mrs Crawford said: “I couldn’t believe it; it was just a bolt out of the blue. Usually you hear about something like this gradually but this was just smack, bang. It came quickly and was sorted out quickly.”
Relatives received a phone call from the Home last Monday night with the shock news but staff waited until Tuesday to inform residents for fear they might have a sleepless night. On Wednesday evening Trust officials addressed residents, relatives and staff at a meeting in Greenfield to elaborate on their proposals.
Then on Friday evening came the unexpected but very welcome news that the Health Minister, Edwin Poots had withdrawn power from all of NI’s Health Trusts to progess with the closure process as planned.
It was a major setback for the Western Trust Board whose members agreed unanimously at their monthly meeting the previous day to forge ahead with a consultation process to close William Street and Rectory Field care homes in Derry city and Waterside areas, Thackeray Place in Limavady and Greenfield in Strabane.
Friday’s stay of execution ended the week on a high for residents and their families.
Mrs Crawford said: “We couldn’t believe it. We were just sitting watching TV and two of the girls [staff] came in. If it had been April 1st I would have thought it was a joke; it was great news.”
The sombre atmosphere that had pervaded the Home for four days was replaced with relief and celebrations, with a party held on Saturday to mark the occasion.
‘Jumping with delight’
“When we were told the news on Tuesday it was as if a cloud had come over the place. Then on Friday when we heard the great news it was as if the cloud had completely disappeared. The residents were delighted and the staff were jumping with delight.”
Mrs Crawford said she believes that after two failed attempts within four years to shut Greenfield, the Western Trust and Department of Health should totally abandon any similar plans in the future.
“Greenfield is the only residential care home in Strabane; the nearest ones are in Derry so it needs to stay open for the people of the town,” she said.
Mrs Crawford challenged Mr Poots and senior officials from his Department to visit Greenfield “unannounced” to see how well the Home is run and happy the residents are.
“The atmosphere is excellent, nothing is too much trouble. We are all friends, from the top staff right down. We are all just one big very happy family.”
In a direct message to Minister Poots, Mrs Crawford said: “I wish you had come here at some stage to see with your own eyes the daily life we have here which is excellent. The Home is run under the strictest management.”
Commenting on the debacle between the heads of the Health Trusts and the Minister culminating in his announcement on Friday that the issue was now being centralised by his department, the 95-year-old Strabane resident said: “One is now trying to blame the other like they always do when something goes wrong in all walks of life.”
In a stark message to health officials still contemplating the closure of Greenfield, of the likely impact on frail and elderly residents, Mrs Crawford added: “It would be the end of their life; I don’t think they could cope with being uprooted. It would break their hearts.”
Sara’s son, Sean Crawford, said he was “very happy” with the care and facilities provided at Greenfield.
“I think the Health Trust may have under-estimated the resilience and strength of residents when faced with the prospect of their Home being closed,” he said.
Mr Crawford said while the Trusts were advocating more older people living at home, with the best will in the world families could not always deliver 24 hour care in the way residential homes like Greenfield provide.
He said officials had suggested at the meeting in the Home last Wednesday that beds could be freed up in private nursing homes in Strabane if some residents from Derry moved to care homes in the city. “The impression was given that people would be going to nursing homes not built yet.”