Saturday 26 July 2014

HCPT group 560 - A week of making a difference

Yesterday I got back from a week in France. Once a year I go away as a carer as part of HCPT group 560. We stay at Hosanna House in Bartres in France. The group this year consisted of 30 people, some who require assistance to get around and some you require higher levels of help. For some of the group, it will be their only holiday this year. As you can see from the beautiful vista behind the group, that it is a fabulous setting. Hosanna House is a purpose built hostel for handicapped people. HCPT has the ethos that people with disability are part of the group and we do everything together as a group. Bartres is  a town 3km from the Lourdes, a large religous shrine, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The group is open to anyone who wants to come, regardless of religious persuasion and our group is usually at least 50% non Catholic (no one asks each other or cares much). Whilst there is a religious focus, this is primarily on personal development, and it is my view that most people get a huge amount from the trip.

I started volunteering with thr group in 2001, as I wanted to put something back into the community. When I first went, I really had no idea of the challenges the disabled have on a daily basis. For many years I took my mum, who had suffered a stroke in 2000. She was a dedicated Roman Catholic and her last few holidays were on the trip. More recently I've taken my cousin Tessie, who has Downs Syndrome. Tessie couldn't make it this year due to a family wedding. This year two of my children came along, my son who is 14 and my daughter who is 17. They've both been several times before and came by choice. My wife didn't, she's not been. My children, who have to generally be dragged to church, both made a positive decision to go. My daughter, who went for the first time as a helper, being 17, shared a room with the fabulous actress Jo Eastwood. Jo is one of the leading actresses with Downs Syndrome. She lives independently and so for my daughter it was an easy week. My son being 14, wasn't officially a carer. He had teaboy duties and also arranged much of the merriment, culminating with the "Hosanna House Got Talent" contest on the final night, which was a hoot. He was quite pleased that I came last!

What we did on our holidays !
For me the most important part of the week is enabling everyone to have a special week. Some of the helpers have to get up several times in the night to turn people, or help them to the toilet. We are pretty much all outside our comfort zone at times. We have a qualified nurse and a doctor as part of the group, for advice and guidance when needed. That said, we also have a lot of fun. Trips into Lourdes usually end at our favourite Bar "La Terrace", on the banks of the river Gave. It is a lovely spot and serves a fine range of beers, coffies and rather tasty deserts, you can see a few of my friends enjoying this in the picture.

The main thing I have learned over the years is just how tough it is for the disabled and their carers. I am exhausted after a week, I cannot imagine what the likes of our guest blogger John Sullivan feel like after 50 years. Our group gives other family members a bit of respite. One of the most inspirational members of the group is Helen, she'd the lovely lady in the wheelchair at the left hand side of the picture. When we arrived Helen gave a speech for the new arrivals, telling them her story, how she first came with the group and how much it means to her. In conversation with Helen, she tells me how most people think the disabled want to do basket weaving and are shoved in the corner. She comes with our group as she is a central part of the team. Helen lives independently with carers, in her own flat. With adaptions and care, anyone can live independently and should be able to if they chose.

Every year we have several challenges. The worst one this year was getting some of the people in wheelchairs on and off the plane. Going out, the airport started letting passengers board before we'd transferred all of the people in wheelchairs onto the plane. Let me explain how you get someone in an electric wheelchair on and off a plane. Some of the people are well over 13 stone. They have to be physically lifted by several people onto  a "flight chair" from their wheelchair in the flight dock. A flight chair is a specia wheelchair thin enough to pass down the aisle. When they are on this rather uncomfortable contraption, they are then wheeled to the appropirate seat. Modern airplanes have some aisle seats where the armrests come up. This is lifted and then several people lift and drag the person from the flight chair onto the seat. As you can imagine, lifting a large person is hard enough, but when you have to do this around the seats of the plane, it is a high risk operation. It is not nice for the disabled person. Imagine trying to do that whilst people are barging past trying to find the best seats. We had to aske several people to move, as they'd taken seats in the rows where armrests lift. All in all it was rather stressfull. The operation is repeated in reverse on landing, however we let all the passengers leave.

The whole thing is inherently risky and rather humiliating. I believe airports and airlines should be legally obliged to up their game in respect of disabled passengers. There are many small things which could be done to make the process easier and safer.

Another issue for our group this year was CRB forms. If you speak to anyone who has anything to do with charities or caring on a voluntary basis, this is a nightmare. Many of our helpers have several CRB forms. This year, a nurse could not attend as the forms were not processed in time, even though she works in a hospital and has several. There should be a single CRB check that charities can simply access. That should be the end of it.

It is also interesting talking to the disabled about the effects of the cuts. These are having a horrible effect on the every day lives. I find it disgusting that millionaires  have tax cuts whilst the disabled have service cuts. Does no one in government realise how awful and cruel these changes are? We can find money for guns and bombs, we can find money for tax cuts for billionaires. Why can't we fund day centres for the disabled and all the other things which make life bearable.

Another issue which cropped up in conversation was the legislation about the right to end life. Putting the moral arguments to one side, it is clear to me that many disabled feel very threatened by this legislation. They are worried that it will place them in the category of "burdensome" and they are scared.

It always takes me a few days to get my head back into "normal life" when I return. The week is challenging and hugely rewarding.  I would recommend volunteering with  a disabled group to anyone. It is one of the best things in my life. I've made lots of great friends and learned so much. What more could your want from a weeks holiday?

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