THE recent spate of horror stories concerning the abuse in some care homes has been a major talking point up and down the country.
Reports of patient mistreatment by staff in residential centres in Bristol, Burnley and Devon and complaints to the Care Quality Commission have dominated the headlines, often overshadowing the good work going on elsewhere.
The news of the reopening of Swadlincote’s Oakland Village last week helped one Newhall woman to remember the good times she spent working there 50 years ago, a million miles apart from the stories of neglect and poor treatment we read about today.
As soon as I sat down in Sylvia Harris’ living room and began talking to her it was clear that she revelled in sharing her experiences of the home, her trips down memory lane told passionately and with bouts of laughter in between.
“It was a very happy time of my life, a very happy seven years,” the grandmother told me with a grin.
After studying hotel and catering at Derby College and working at Coleorton Hall for the National Coal Board, the now-70-year-old began her job at Oakland when she was 22-years-old.
Working as a cook, she was there at the care home opening on March 7, 1964, a date that remains clear in her mind for more than one reason.
“I remember the day clearly because it was the same day that my brother got married. I went in in the morning to prepare the food for the opening day but I didn’t stay for the evening do as I was a bridesmaid in the ceremony.”
The first patients to reside at Oakland were moved there from the old Andressey maternity and geriatric hospital in Burton.
“Their favourite dish was trouts and onions and all the food was homemade,” she says proudly as she recalls the task of cooking for 60 people every day.
As well as working in the kitchen, Sylvia often helped out with other jobs in the home, sitting with and talking to the home’s occupants if there was no-one else around and aiding others when getting in and out of the bath.
“We all mucked in, the cooks, cleaners, attendants, even the handymen and gardeners,” she said. “We were a family, all helping each other. The residents would come into the kitchen and help with the washing and drying sometimes.”
Listening to Sylvia’s experiences, it’s hard to imagine the same sense of togetherness in today’s care homes, but she has a theory about that.
Speaking of her colleagues, she told me: “We were all friends and a lot of us were local so we saw each other a lot. I think that helped when we were working together and probably doesn’t happen as much nowadays. I think we had more time with the patients compared to now.”
It’s obvious just how highly Sylvia thought of the home and the work the staff did there, especially when remembering one resident in particular, a lady who had been found alone in her house, neglected.
“She had long hair and nails and was malnourished, I was the first there to give her a meal. The home really took care of her well and after a week or two she was a completely different person.”
Opening its doors last week, the new Oakland Village cost £20 million to develop and includes 88 one and two-bedroom purpose-built extra care apartments, a health and wellbeing zone, gym and gardens.
Back in the ‘60s however, things were very different according to Sylvia.
“The facilities were modern at the time but there were no en-suite facilities and it was very sterile, like a hospital. It was still very nice, but I imagine it’s a lot more homely now.”
Sylvia left her job at the home after seven years there in order to get married to her husband Barrie, 74. The couple now have three children, Joanne, 36, twins Jonathan and Simon, 31, and have a grandson, five-year-old Keelan.
“I didn’t get much time for myself when I worked at the home, but as soon as I left I missed it. I don’t think I was as enamoured with any other job after working there. Things weren’t the same. It was like you were back in the real world.”
After getting married, she wore her wedding dress while visiting friends at Oakland to celebrate the occasion together.
Following various cooking and manageress jobs, she and Barrie, an electrician, ran their own electrical supply shop in Newhall for 14 years before retiring.
Sylvia now works as a volunteer for the Patient Participation Group which raises money for Newhall Surgery and took part in this month’s Ovarian Cancer Awareness event.
She told me: “As soon as I heard about Oakland reopening it brought all these feeling and memories rushing back. The new home sounds like a fabulous place and I hope they’re as happy as we were.
“We were a community. We wouldn’t tolerate any ill treatment of the residents, we loved all of them. We all cared about them, that’s one thing that has always stuck in my mind.”