Can a new day centre dawn?

For such an innocuous concept, day centres can be quite
divisive. For some social care professionals and service users
alike, day centres offer the ideal opportunity to provide targeted
services to clients in a safe, stable environment. But others
regard them as outdated and patronising, a service firmly stuck in
the last century. So is the debate over day centres that

When day centres opened their doors in the 1960s they were aimed
at people with learning difficulties, who often attended five days
a week. They offered a relief to this group – and their parents –
as no services had preceded them. However, the centres were little
more than institutions, with users isolated from their local
communities and not involved in meaningful activities.

Nowadays a range of service users, including older people and
those who are homeless or have mental health problems, use centres
as part of their care package.

For the past six years, Sheila Bell, day services co-ordinator
for Suffolk Council, has been based at the Stradbroke Court day
centre for older people in Lowestoft. It offers 30 places a day and
106 clients attend on average twice a week from Monday to

Bell says day centres for older people in particular have
progressed significantly in the past 10 years, due partly to
changing demographics: “The sorts of people who were in residential
care in 1992 now attend day centres. They are much frailer and
older and need specialised transport to get them there.” She says
the centre gives back to older people the social aspect of their
lives that they lose when they are “sitting at home alone, looking
at four walls”.

Last year Stradbroke Court became involved in the New Look
Project, operated by arts and inclusion agency Suffolk Artlink. The
basis of the pilot was to involve older people in art workshops,
but with a difference: the usual fare of Easter bonnets and
Christmas cards was out; instead, in came four practising artists
and a writer to lead a series of workshops.

Clearly some day centres run effectively, but there is often
another side to the story. Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the
Mental Health Foundation, says the concept put the cart before the
horse: “Day centres are an estate-centred approach, not a
person-centred one.” He says the quality of service in day centres
for people with mental health problems varies widely because there
is little guidance for service providers. “A lot of clients are
treated like couch potatoes,” McCulloch says. “They sit there and
drink coffee.”

Day centres are an inadequate way to meet people’s support
needs, agrees Roy Webb, the National Centre for Independent
Living’s head of policy. “The trouble is that most day centres are
limited in the type of support they can and do offer. People go
there because they don’t have the practical support available to
them otherwise.”

Although some day centres have transformed themselves into
supporting independent living for their users, Webb says most lack
the resources to make the change. Instead, they “play safe” and
continue as they always have done.

But if this is the case, how is it that when a day centre is
threatened with closure users band together to protest? Many a
placard has been waved declaring that such centres are much valued
and how wrong a local authority is to contemplate closing it.

Barbara McIntosh, co-director of the Foundation for People with
Learning Disabilities, says parents of day centre users often fear
that the quality of a service will fall if it is redesigned. She
says: “We have seen examples of people receiving a lesser service
rather than a better one.”

Webb says some local authorities fail to spend enough time
preparing to change their day centres into positive alternatives
and if they did this then clients would not resist the change.

So what makes a good day centre? It might simply be one run by a
positive team that listens to its clients and provides an
imaginative variety of activities. Bell says: “You have to be
needs-led. What you do has to reflect those users.”

No matter how much day centres strive to improve, for some users
and social care professionals they are simply not the answer. But
unless there is wholesale revolution, day centres seem set to

Convert to the cause

When Dora Welch, 88,  was advised to go to a day centre five
years ago she was unimpressed. Having always been active – she took
up sequence dancing at the age of 61 – she wasn’t ready to slow
down. Eventually, continuing problems with her heart led doctors to
recommend Welch attend a day centre and employ carers.  She
recalls: “I thought ‘I’m not ready for that’ because in my mind I
thought day centres were about people being slumped in chairs.” Her
negative view stemmed from when her aunt was in a home where all
the residents spent their days sitting in their chairs. Welch
decided to give it a go anyway and began to attend Stradbroke Court
once a week. After her first visit she decided it was “ok” and on
the eve of her third visit Welch admits she was looking forward to
going.  She now attends every Monday and Thursday and takes part in
a mixture of activities ranging from bingo and quizzes to going out
for meal and boat trips. What does she say to those who believe day
centres fail to provide their users with enough stimulating
activities? “I don’t know what people expect if they think a day
centre is boring – you have to take part. The staff try their
hardest to get people to join in and I wouldn’t have the patience
to do that. “I’m definitely going to come here until they chuck me
out. In fact, I’d come every day but I don’t think they’d have

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