Should we have dedicated care facilities for older deaf people?
Last week's story about my friend Frank and the lovely care home at which he is staying in Newcastle coincided with a fax I received the same day.
It was from a deaf man in Bangor who had been in contact with Conrad Kirkwood, head of Physical and Sensory Disability at the department of Health, Social Service and Public Safety, on the same parallel question of a residential home in Northern Ireland for older deaf people.
Bangor man Bertie had written in admiration of Rumball, the wonderful residential home for deaf people he visited during a holiday in Canada, and feels we need something similar here so our older deaf can enjoy fellowship in their golden years with people of the same needs and communication problems rather than be scattered all over the country in small units attached to hearing homes with little to look forward to but loneliness and only occasional visits from family or friends.
In his reply to Bertie, Mr Kirkwood agrees there is no dedicated residential or nursing home in Northern Ireland for people who are solely deaf, deafblind or hard of hearing. There is, he says, a residential unit for deaf people with mental disorders at Harkness Gardens in Londonderry run by the RNID, and he's been advised that the same body is currently considering the development of a residential home for elderly deaf people in the Bangor area in partnership with the Presbyterian Housing Association. This development, he says, is in its early stages and as yet there is no date for completion.
In response to Bertie's point about the potential isolation that elderly people who are deaf or have a hearing impairment may experience in these small unit facilities, Mr Kirkwood goes on to say that of course the staff are very mindful of this and are actively encouraged to learn sign language and attend deaf awareness training in order to overcome any communication barriers.
"It is government policy," he writes, "to promote care in the community so far as is possible and where appropriate. Where this is not possible, social workers in specialist teams provide support to elderly people with hearing problems when they enter nursing homes or residential facilities".
In his accompanying fax to me Bertie says that if the proposed plans come to fruition either Bangor or Derry would be the best options for a new centre as the greater number of deaf live nearby and travel would not be a great problem. Bertie also feels that the venture would have more chance of success if it was a close as possible to shops, and a church and club were within easy reach so that the older deaf residents and those with mobility problems could get about easily.
Such an idea is very attractive and seems to work very well when practised in countries such as Canada and Holland, with populations much bigger that Northern Ireland. Would it work so well in our wee country where so many of our older deaf value their privacy above all else and are ensconced in comfortable homes with our wide-screen subtitled televisions and text phones for instant communication? The new generation of older deaf folk are much more tough and independent than before and any proposed new home would have to be very good indeed to tempt us out of our snug and expensive nests.
These suggestions refer only to the totally deaf, sign language community, which total about 5,000 in the province. The hard of hearing and deafened add up to a much larger number and require a different form of care and attention.