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How the Pandemic has affected Working in Learning Disabilities Services

A third of all coronavirus deaths in England and Wales are now happening in care homes.

Office for National Statistics data showed there were 2,000 coronavirus care home deaths in the week ending 17 April, double the previous week.

The incredibly alarming and upsetting news has brought into sharp focus the vital work carers provide to those who are vulnerable in society.

The spread of COVID-19 has taken its toll on a system that stretches beyond the NHS, and residential and nursing homes, often with more than 100 beds for older people have been particularly affected.

Running alongside these, tens of thousands of adults are cared for in supported living services. Typically much smaller services, this model allows people with a range of support needs to maintain their independence with support in their own tenancies.

We work with organisations all around the UK who specialise in providing supported living services for people with learning disabilities and mental health support needs, often in households of two to five adults. 

While the service users have varying degrees of independence, their support takes into account particular vulnerabilities. An individual’s care package is tailored to provide quality of life through the upkeep of a safe environment and stimulating activities, as well as support with daily tasks such as washing, dressing, food preparation and eating, financial decision making and social interaction. 

Support Workers observe the individual care plans to ensure support is given but independence is upheld. Our team includes 700 experienced, trained, vetted and flexible support workers, familiar with the client group. 

COVID-19 had brought challenges into these environments, as seismic changes to routines and the norm can have a particularly profound effect on service users.

Helen and Magadi’s story

Helen and Magadi are support workers who have worked with Search Health & Social Care for many years across many services. 

Helen has been working for a couple of years at a service for five people with complex care needs due to autism, epilepsy and dementia. 

She said: “I work in care because no two days are the same, and I enjoy building the relationships and creating a positive environment and that has not changed my approach.

“On a personal level, Covid-19 has changed how we work. As we provide some personal care, infection control and the use of PPE has never been more important.”

We asked how her clients had been affected by the pandemic.

“Generally they have a very limited understanding of COVID-19. It is quite a difficult thing for anyone to get their head around, so we have tried to reduce anxieties with films and music, rather than have the news on constantly.

We are always thinking of new ways to try to explain why things have changed and why we can’t do all the things we used to, although it won’t be forever.”

Social interaction with family has been all but stopped completely and phone and video calls just can’t replace the regular face-to-face contact that the clients are used to.

“We keep being asked, ‘When can I see my mum?’ or ‘when is my sister coming to see me?’”.

We are there to provide reassurance and try to promote other methods of contact as positive. But it doesn’t always help and can trigger challenging behaviour. Often there is a tendency to feel rejected which we work to try and manage, from shouting and aggression through to complete withdrawal.”

The benefits of routine are re-enforced by stimulating activities, such as going to the cinema, concerts, sports and social events. With options limited, support workers are having to be creative.

“We have done special cinema nights, recreating the environment with popcorn, for some favourite films. Karaoke has gone down a treat too! We have also been using the garden more and making the most of the weather.”

Revised government guidance on 16th April states that those with specific conditions, such as autism and learning difficulties, who need to leave the house in order to maintain their health, will be able to do so ‘two or three times each day’.

“This could, for example, include where individuals with learning disabilities or autism require specific exercise in an open space two or three times each day”, it reads.

However, this should ideally be in line with an agreed care plan advised by a medical professional. The new rules have also clarified that those with autism or specific health conditions are allowed to travel further than their local area, and more than once a day although this should be limited as much as possible and also “ideally in line with an agreed care plan”.

“It’s good that this has been recognised as the benefits of activities are huge”.

Magadi works with a service user who benefitted particularly from trips out.

“We go out twice a day in the car. Usually we would have gone to shopping centres or markets, but because of social distancing, we just go out for long drives. It is not the same but we have to think of ways that somehow replace their activities” 

Both Magadi and Helen are thankful the services they work in have not had cases of COVID-19 but are aware of the devastating effect that the virus has had on other care settings.

The new guidance also reiterates the social distancing rule that you should remain two metres apart from other individuals who are not part of your household at all times in order to reduce the spread of infection. But this doesn’t apply to carers who remain in close contact with clients, who have to provide personal care, administer some medications and occasionally perform physical intervention techniques.   

“Like any other care setting the threat is still there and we have to mindful of it, especially trying to keep to close contact to a minimum where there is limited understanding”  

Support workers like Magadi and Helen have been spurred on by the national interest and positive coverage of the work people do. 

“It’s really nice to know someone is thinking of us” says Magadi.

“In my home country I trained as a physiotherapist so caring has been something I wanted to do since I was a little girl. Covid-19 is a risk but I’m a spiritual person so that helps me to overcome any worries” Also, with the news being off in the services, Coronavirus is not the subject of every conversation as it seems to be elsewhere.

“Some of our clients are aware there is a ‘bug’ out there, but some have no awareness of it. It’s great to be able to able to be at work and talk and think about other things.”

Making a difference

We are so proud of the dedication and care that Magadi and Helen show to their work and the service users they support. We are equally proud of Tina and Jessica, two more colleagues who have received recognition for their work during these challenging times.

You might also be interested in

Nurses on the Front Line a Moving Open Letter

The impact of Coronavirus on Nurses

What Nurses need to know about Coronavirus

The impact of Coronavirus on Social Workers

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