Northern trust to close care homes in long term
The Northern Health Trust has said it eventually intends to close all the residential homes in its area.
In a statement, the trust said it planned to close half of its nine homes in the next three years and, in the longer term, stop providing residential care entirely.
The plans are part of a wide-ranging reform of elderly care provision across Northern Ireland.
The move has been criticised by local politicians and unions.
Unison said Pinewood residential home in Ballymena and Westlands in Cookstown would close in November; Rathmoyle in Moyle would close in January 2014 and the remainder would shut between 2014 and 2018.
Unison added the closures would remove any choice for vulnerable people while another union, Unite, described the move as "privatising elderly health care".
The trust's statement said: "At present the trust manages nine residential homes and we propose that no more long-term admissions are made to any of our homes.
"We would intend to close up to 50% of our homes over the next three years and in the longer term stop providing statutory residential care entirely. Some private residential care will be available."
On Thursday, the Trust discussed a paper on the future of residential care services, which, if agreed, will go to public consultation.
The paper forms part of the Transforming Your Care plan recently agreed by the health minister, Edwin Poots, which recommended a 50% reduction in care homes across the whole of Northern Ireland.
Under the plan, the focus of care provision for the elderly will move away from residential settings and concentrate more on independent living, where people are given support to stay in their own homes.
Una Cunning, director of older people's service at the Northern Health Trust said: "Older people have consistently told us that they want to remain at home for as long as possible.
"We are also planning for a growing older population and the ensuing demands on the service."
She said the trust had invested an additional £3.5m over three years in domiciliary care provision in response to an increase in requests for the service.
However, independent Moyle councillor Padraig McShane said the withdrawal of NHS residential care would leave elderly people isolated in their own homes.
He said what was being offered in its place was "out of touch with humanity".
"You don't have the human touch - you have electronic mechanisms to look after elderly people," Mr McShane said.
"They're isolated, they're alone, they're in flats essentially and that's what we're moving from. We're moving from a hands-on approach to looking after the elderly to a situation where they have very little human touch and a mechanised process to end out their days."
The changes will affect people like 73-year-old Margaret McNeill. She currently lives alone in a fold in Ballycastle, County Antrim, but for six weeks a year, she receives respite care at Rathmoyle residential home.
Her son, Danny McNeill, told the BBC that during the respite period, their family noticed a "vast improvement in her health", but it would deteriorate again when she returned to her fold.
"She loved it in there when she was in it because she was well looked after, well fed. She had company, you know?
"She had company from other ones - she was fit to sit and talk to them and fit to go about. The only other option then is nursing care and we don't feel that's the right environment for her."
Mr McNeill said his family were frustrated that her care was limited to six weeks a year and felt she deserved more residential provision, not less.
Now the home is earmarked for closure and Mr McNeill said he is not aware of any similar facility in the area that offers the type of care his mother requires.
"For a woman of my mother's age I just think it's not on that she can't get into a place like that," he said.
Joe McCusker of Unison said claimed it was a "deliberate move" by the trust to withdraw from provision of care in residential homes and to "leave the care of the most vulnerable in our society in the hands of private sector providers whose main aim is to maximise profits and satisfy their shareholders".
The East Antrim Unionist MLA Roy Beggs, who sits on Stormont's health committee, said he was shocked that the trust was going out to consultation to close all the homes in the area.
"I do not understand what is going on. There is confusion out there. Staff and vulnerable residents are very concerned with this latest news," he said.
Earlier this year, the BBC revealed that the number of statutory residential care homes in Northern Ireland would be cut by half to 27.
Greater emphasis is to be placed on providing care at home and on nurses working in the community.
John Compton, chief executive of the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) said his organisation supported the move by the Northern Trust.
"Many of our current statutory residential homes are in need of significant capital investment which we feel would be more appropriately directed to non-institutional, community-based services to increase the range of alternatives for older people," he said.
Mr Compton said those alternatives would include supported living accommodation, re-ablement services, self-directed support, assistive technology, and domiciliary care packages.
"Supported living accommodation or 'housing with care' options are already developing," he said.
"Indeed, two of the homes which the Northern Trust is proposing to close are to allow for the development of supported living accommodation on the same site.
"We can see from supported living facilities, such as Cedar Court in Downpatrick how successful these can be in providing both support and independent living for residents."