Castlerea’s Covid Story Part 1

I think we can all agree that the last year and a half has been pretty tough.

The pandemic has taken its toll on everyone, from frontline NHS workers to the unsung heroes keeping the supermarkets well stocked. We have all had to adapt how we work and live and the staff and residents here at Castlerea House are no exception. I think I speak for everyone when I say we are all looking forward to getting back to normal and putting 2020 (and most of 2021) behind us. But is there anything that about this whole mess that has been positive? If I am being totally honest, the answer, surprisingly, is yes.

The last 18 months have made us here at Castlerea House take a long hard look at how we operate to ensure we were able to face the challenges we were being presented with. This process has led to a great deal of improvements to the way we work and the care we deliver. Compared to where we were at the start of 2020, we are now a well-oiled machine. It hasn’t been easy getting here but the improvements are undeniable. My hope with this blog is to share some of these changes and successes in order to inspire others to reflect on the positives they have experienced so that we can all hit the ground running when we finally get out the other side.

So let me tell you our pandemic story.

A peaceful, caring, family home.

Castlerea House is a residential home for adults with mental illnesses; it opened back in 1991 and some of the first residents and staff members are still here after all these years. It was founded by John and Sally Harte who set out to create a safe, caring home for their residents, a goal that they very much achieved. In 2011, after John and Sally had retired, Castlerea was taken over by Linda Priest (my mentor and also my mum) and myself (Hi, I’m James!) and we couldn’t have been luckier. The residents were all happy and settled, with a staff team that cared and would do anything to support the residents. It really was a dream job for me.

However, if I had to be critical, we could have been better (or more accurately, I could have been better). Knowing the residents were being cared for meant it was easy to relax and tread water. Paperwork, supervisions, structure, and all that boring stuff was not our (my) strong point. We were meeting all the minimum targets set by governing bodies, all the professions who visited were impressed with the homely atmosphere we maintained, and our residents were all well looked after. There really wasn’t any pressure on me to improve…

…then 2020 rolled round.

The First Wave

I remember sitting round my friend’s house in January 2020, laughing at the latest scare-mongering stories of the mysterious “deadly virus” that was affecting China. “Remember SARS? Or swine flu? Or bird flu? These things never come to anything, it’s just the newspapers trying to sell more copies!”

Oh, how clever I thought I was.

However, I didn’t feel quite so clever by March when the UK went into lockdown.

Almost overnight life at Castlerea (as well as everywhere else) changed. The residents could not go out, no more day centres, cafes, trips to the cinema, not even visiting families and friends. The staff team, who, like everyone else, was avoiding contact with their friends and families, now had a whole host of new duties. They had to don and doff PPE every five minutes, wash their hands every time they looked at them, and use their own body weight in hand sanitiser each shift. All this whilst helping ten service users manage their mental health during one of the most stressful times in the nation’s history.

And that was just the start. Suddenly all Tesco’s delivery slots were booked up and so we had to go and queue up outside the shops to ensure the residents had food. Household essentials had all been bought up in the panic (I still don’t know why people thought they needed so much toilet paper!), the all-important hand sanitiser went from £1 a bottle to £10 a bottle and yet it was still sold out. The cleaning schedule was now the dominant task of the day, with banisters and doorknobs being cleaned with the same frequency as the painting of the Forth bridge (as soon as you are finished you start again). Residents had to have their temperature taken twice daily, a task that highlighted the fragility of cheap thermometers (I’m not going to miss the weekly chorus of “the thermometer is broken again!”). Medication was no longer being supplied in the easy-to-use rack system but in individual boxes, turning the simple task of administering medication into a complicated nightmare (or did it? There will be a post on that coming soon.). The residents’ befrienders could no longer take people out, churches and synagogues weren’t holding services, and the lovely café we had just discovered at the end of the road was closed until further notice. And this is before the joy of regular testing had started!

All the time there was the very real fear that a life-threatening virus could enter the home like it had in so many other care homes across the country.

For a short time, the homely atmosphere we prided ourselves on was at risk.

Rising to the challenge.

As the old saying goes, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” and the staff team here demonstrated just how tough they were. They just rolled up their sleeves (and removed their watches, as per government guidance) and got stuck in, absorbing the extra cleaning tasks without letting it affect the care and support they gave the residents. In fact, this is where they excelled.

As you can imagine, our residents were finding the “new normal” incredibly hard to understand and cope with and, with most of their usual coping mechanisms cut off, it would have been easy for them to spiral downhill fast. However, whenever it got too much for any of them, someone was there with a socially-distanced shoulder to cry on, a listening ear and a fun activity to take their mind of things. From pool to Subbuteo, colouring-in to gardening, quizzes, bingo, cooking and karaoke. Sitting and dwelling on the bleakness of the situation was not an option at Castlerea. And these were just the every-day activities, I will be writing separate posts about some of the more ambitious events (I never thought we’d be celebrating Olivia Newton-John’s birthday, but I am glad we did!). Not to mention the amazing work done by our art therapists Catherine and Hannah and our students Chloe and Katie (we really couldn’t have coped without them). In all seriousness, the care and dedication our team showed throughout this has been the most heart-warming experience I have ever been part of.

But hard work and good intentions are only part of the battle. The missing ingredient is something I had been lacking up until now, something I have not achieved in my nine years as a manager… structure.

It was time to stop spinning plates and start steering the ship.

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