Model Village

With a dispersed and ageing population, Cumbria has embraced technology to build a virtual care village. Graham Hopkins reports

Home to the Lake District National Park, William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, Cumbria is the second largest county in England, comprising almost half the land area of the North West.

But with a population of just 488,500 – less even than the city of Sheffield – people are unsurprisingly dispersed. More than 70 per cent of settlements have fewer than 200 people. The largest, Carlisle, with 100,000 people is one of only 20 with more than 2,500 inhabitants.

And while the natural beauty and sparse population combine to form a rural idyll for many, it also throws up many challenges. There are plenty of real mountains to climb here but it was the metaphorical one facing the council about providing services for people, particularly older people, with high care needs that looked the most daunting.

“Rurality is a massive issue for us,” says strategic development officer Peter Woodhouse. “Government research says that 90 per cent of older people with high care needs want to stay at home. We know, with an increasingly ageing population, we can’t afford to deliver services in the traditional way. We had to look elsewhere.”

Eyes scanned in on new technology. “In 2003 we piloted our safe home projects,” says Woodhouse.

“These were free ‘telecare’ services specifically for people with dementia or other memory loss problems. It helped us to test out the effectiveness of risk management sensors, and we know people have been kept at home who otherwise would have moved into residential care.”

The approach makes use of telecare technology – an enhanced community alarm system that uses a range of sensors to manage risks in the home, such as fire, floodLessons learned110506 (taps left running), gas, heat extremes, falls, and wandering from home.

So, kitted out with new technology, and supported by the Department of Health Change Agent Team, sights widened.

While there are more than 300 towns and villages in Cumbria a new village received planning permission: a virtual care village. Says Woodhouse: “The telecare scheme allows us to give a similar level of risk management and care and support to people in their own home as they would get if they moved into extra care housing.”

All those who live in the village – with a planned population of 500 by 2008 – will already receive care services. “It can also mean a better use of home care services,” adds Woodhouse. “For example, someone might have three check-up visits each night, where the carer calls to make sure they are OK; but with this equipment we can cancel those visits because the care provider will only need to respond if an alarm has gone off.”

If an alarm does sound at any time the 24-hour staffed call centre consults a list of people best placed to respond.

This could be the emergency services, district nursing services, home care service, the community alarm’s own mobile response service, the Alzheimer’s Society’s family support service, and so on.

“However, to be fair,” admits Woodhouse, “it is usually family members or friends and neighbours.” This has focused concern on those who live (by Cumbrian standards) in remote locations and who do not have friends or family nearby. “We recognise that statutory services might take some time to respond,” agrees Woodhouse.

“So, we’re trying to work with local communities – through parish councils and neighbourhood forums – to promote and develop ‘community capacity'; to get people in villages to think about supporting others who live there: to start looking after each other. We will look to provide them with finance, training or other support.”

Local research has shown that this year the county has an extra 700 people aged 85 and over.

“We know that 50 per cent of people aged 85 plus will need a care package from social services,” says Woodhouse. “It costs around 1,000 to install the equipment and a weekly charge of 8.22 to run; compare that to the 355 a week in a residential care home and the potential for savings and keeping people where they want to be is obvious.”

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