HospiceCare offers a helping hand

Sue Gilbertson, hospice nurse/manager, with some of the people who are accessing HospiceCare North Northumberland's weekly therapeutic drop-in clinics.
Sue Gilbertson, hospice nurse/manager, with some of the people who are accessing HospiceCare North Northumberland's weekly therapeutic drop-in clinics.

The incredible work of HospiceCare North Northumberland, which has centres in Alnwick and Berwick, has been recognised by the UK’s national charity for hospice care.

Elizabeth Palfreman, from Hospice UK, reflects on her trip to the hospice and what is important to patients.

This time last week I was looking out of an office window to a view of Alnwick Castle – certainly more scenic than Kings Cross. I was in the offices of HospiceCare North Northumberland.

This hospice delivers hospice care in the home to the 63,000 residents of the most northerly part of England. Ruggedly beautiful and very remote, this corner of the country is a well hidden secret.

Why was I there?

Hospice UK is encouraging staff to spend three days with a local hospice to understand how care is delivered locally. And, having always worked in hospices with an in-patient unit, I was intrigued to discover how a purely hospice at home service operated.

Founded in 1995, the hospice has day therapy centres in Alnwick and Berwick (a 40-minute drive away) and, in addition to the hospice at home service, it provides expert end-of-life care, a lymphedema clinic and a bereavement service.

Last year the hospice looked after 360 families. The whole service – including fund-raising, finance and the volunteers – is the responsibility of hospice manager and nurse Sue Gilbertson, who typifies the spirit of the organisation.

By many standards, the £400K which needs to be raised each year appears a small target.

However, as the team pointed out, when you have a small, elderly population and ‘a lot of sheep’; it is an awful lot of money to find.

What did I learn?

That a small number of the right people in a team can achieve tremendous things.

I am sure they have a mission statement but it did not have to be spelled out. Everyone I met knew it was about putting the patient and their families first when plans were made.

‘I have just sent a text to a husband whose wife died six weeks ago. It is her birthday today and I thought he might be low,’ I heard one of the team say. ‘It allowed me to suggest he comes to one of the drop-in sessions.’

I was privileged to be invited into the home of one of the patients. Chatting to his wife and young daughter, we were all treated as old friends.

‘I cannot believe this care is provided by a charity,’ the wife said. ‘They have been with me every step of the way and have allowed me to be a wife, not just a carer.’

As we spoke, a knock at the door heralded the arrival of a two-course dinner for the family, provided by one of the rota of family friends. That was the other thing I learnt – the community spirit is still firmly alive in Northumbria.

Later I asked Sue about bereavement counselling for the children. The service they provide is for adults but she has called on the neighbouring hospice for help and advice so that this family have support as they move towards a different future.

With an elderly population, dementia care is an ever-increasing issue. Sue is delighted that, from September, the hospice is undertaking an 18-month project to tackle dementia care in care homes.

This will involve the hospice recruiting a senior mental-health professional to bring in specialist skills and knowledge of dementia to the existing palliative and end-of-life-care hospice team.

The hospice nursing team and volunteers will develop their own skills and knowledge in dementia to be able to offer support and interventions to people with dementia and their families as their disease progresses.

The funding for this programme came from two grants applied for by their volunteer trust fund-raisers.

I left Northumberland reluctantly, and with a new dress from the beautiful charity shop.

The visit had made me reflect on what is really important to patients. So often we get involved with big schemes and plans and yet the simple act of sitting with a patient and chatting so his wife can go and have a haircut (‘a pleasure to do’ said Ed, a volunteer) delivers something simple and effective.

However, the impact of such an act vastly exceeds that simplicity. Just like the care delivered by HospiceCare North Northumberland.

For more information about HospiceCare North Northumberland, visit www.hospicecare-nn.org.uk