A learning disabled man struggling to resettle proved the career catalyst for Rick Henderson, of Action for Advocacy
Becoming a volunteer advocate at the age of 18,for a gentleman named Henry who had spent most of his life in a long-stay institution for people with learning disabilities.
Henry was resettled in a poky maisonette near Brixton, London with another ex-patient and round-the-clock support.
However, this support seemed not to include helping him unpack, settle in or engage with the local community. As a result, Henry was as isolated in the flat as he had been in the institution – perhaps more so.
As Henry’s advocate, I was able to help him take more control of what he wanted from his new life. He wanted friendship, a job and a safe haven – not much to ask after nearly 50 years of institutionalisation.
My experience as Henry’s advocate led to me becoming more involved with advocacy and ultimately resulted in my choice of advocacy as a career. I have never looked back and have Henry to thank for that.
About 10 years ago I was involved with a project to evaluate what life was like for older residents in local authority residential care.
A team of us arranged to spend several days living in various homes to observe and participate in the daily routines and rituals.
The picture that emerged, to no-one’s real surprise, was far from ideal. Residents sat for hours without stimulation or interaction with staff or fellow residents. Personal care was impersonal and regimented; staff indifferent and demoralised. Worst of all was the food, shipped in from outside caterers and served lukewarm. One of my colleagues went down with a tummy bug after eating the shepherd’s pie.
We wrote a damning report on the episode and arranged to meet the director of social services to present our findings and recommendations.
On arrival at his office I was faced with an irate director brandishing a copy of a London listings magazine carrying the headline “Residents starved in care home”. It appeared that a colleague had leaked the story to a journalist friend and the magazine had sensationalised the story.
The director was furious and I had to work hard to placate him without wanting to give the impression that I couldn’t control my team. After several threats along the lines of “you’ll never work in this town again”, I was thrown out of his office. The dressing down I gave to my colleague is now legendary.
Rick Henderson is chief executive at Action for Advocacy
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This article is published in the 4 February 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Many thanks to Henry, none to my gossipy colleague”