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Furlough frustration as Swaffham day care service staff unable to support dementia clients during coronavirus

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Those involved with the running of a town's day centre supporting clients with dementia and mental health issues have spoken about the challenges presented by the coronavirus.

The Merle Boddy Day Centre in Swaffham is currently closed, and the staff have been place on the Government's furlough scheme.

However, contact has not completely shut down during the lockdown as the day service's manager Georgina (Georgie) Bell has continued to speak to the loved ones of clients over the phone. She has also been shopping for those who cannot leave their homes during the pandemic.

Georgie Bell, pictured centre celebrating 30 years of service at Merle Boddy Day Centre in Swaffham back in January 2019
Georgie Bell, pictured centre celebrating 30 years of service at Merle Boddy Day Centre in Swaffham back in January 2019

This does not offer the same advantages the centre would usually bring when it is open seeing as Merle Boddy caters for individual's needs through brain training activities and cooked lunches.

Mrs Bell said: "We are trying to contact clients once a week, usually to the loved ones to find out how things are, but that's all we are doing at the moment. They can't wait for us to open, and some are struggling.

"People really enjoy the day service and the loved ones need to have a break from the people living with dementia as it is exhausting. When you live with someone with dementia you can't bring them into our world any more, you live in a world which could be 50, 40 years ago.

"I'm a big believer that everyone needs a break and a holiday as it's impossible to look after someone 24/7 all the time.

"Dementia is not going to go away because of Covid-19; thing's don't stop and people still need dementia support. It's not something you can sweep under the carpet like sickness or diarrhoea."

Mrs Bell, who has worked at the centre for 31 years, has described being furloughed as "more than frustrating", but she is still eager to help out where she can, albeit in a limited capacity.

Chairman of the service, James Dean, said he is concerned that they cannot offer the usual support to clients.

He said the bosses explored whether the staff could still work when furloughed, which resulted in them being told they could as long as it was not at the centre itself.

The county council has been paying for the clients provided through social services, which equates to roughly one-third of those using the service.

However, two-thirds of the clients are privately funded so the centre is currently experiencing a shortfall.

Mr Dean said: "We are just frustrated really that we can't operate as we would like to. Georgie is very conscientious and has worked since the centre opened more than 30 years ago. She and her team operate on a one-to-one basis but there is no way we can operate like that under the current circumstances.

"It's an unusual and unique service in that it is very much one-to-one and the Merle Boddy is tailored to the benefit of the individual coming in. That is fairly rare as a service and it is clearly a problem trying to replicate that at the moment.

"We do our best to keep them cheerful and tell them we will open as soon as we possibly can."

Although it is still "up in the air", Mr Dean is hoping they can reopen in August as it is not possible to provide clients with technological support during the lockdown such as online video software Zoom, for example.

Mr Dean explained: "The problem is we have a number of people with dementia and unless it is very simple and straightforward, it is very difficult to get a message across. From our aspect we do not think it [technology] would be of great value.

"We are in an unusual situation as we are not dealing with your average customer; it is very specialised and has to be geared to individual needs."

Concerns have been expressed over being unable to receive government grant funding so far. The service pays business rates so has not been eligible for charitable funding during this challenging period.

However, Merle Boddy director Ian Pilcher said the service has "not exhausted the sources of funding in case something comes up further down the line".

Both Mr Pilcher and Mr Dean acknowledged the county council's adult social care team has helped them out financially during the pandemic by granting average fees each month.

During a virtual Swaffham Town Council meeting on Wednesday, Breckland councillor David Wickerson said he is seeking to support Merle Boddy, who operate out of premises owned by Breckland Council.

So far, the service has been unable to receive a Breckland support grant, but there are hopes that this can be resolved in time.

During the council meeting, Mr Wickerson also said Breckland distributed £23m to 2,053 businesses between March and May 6 with just short of 1,650 businesses receiving £10,000 grants. Roughly 400 received £25,000 in grant funding in this period.

Mr Wickerson also said 747 businesses had been eligible for rates relief, equating to more than £13m within Breckland.

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