If you detect the sweet smell of barbecuing sausage in Hounslow this weekend, you might just be passing the front door of The Mulberries, a residential care home for people with profound learning disabilities.
It is 30 years since this home was opened and the first residents moved in, some from nearby Normansfield Hospital which was closing. A new era of community living was being ushered in.
Although the initial support provider at The Mulberries remained the NHS, over the past 30 years first the Notting Hill Trust, then Adepta, and now Dimensions have run the home.
But some things are rather more constant. Malcolm and Alastair were amongst the first people to arrive, Alastair from Normansfield and Malcolm from Leavesden Hospital. Both remain at The Mulberries with four other residents – Carla, Louise, Emma and Mark to this day.
Neither man can speak but the lives of both have been enormously helped by The Mulberries’ other stalwarts, Alison Hill and Mark Edwards, support workers at the home through its entire 30-year history.
“I have literally grown up with Malcom and Alastair,” comments Mark, “in fact, I’ve actually known Alastair for 40 years, since he was a patient at Normansfield and I volunteered on his ward.
“I see them more than I see my family. And although they have no speech and can’t use picture based communication, over three or four decades you develop a built in knowledge of what they want and how, in their own way, they’ve learned to express that.”
Alastair’s mum Liz takes up the story: “At the time, my son Alastair was 18 years old and had already been in Normansfield Hospital for about 10 years.
The Mulberries was built under a Government initiative to start closing the long-stay hospitals and to bring people back into their local communities. The children were to be moved in the first instance into more homely settings.
He moved into The Mulberries in January 1986 and was the first person to move in. He was even in the local paper!”
The closing of the long stay hospitals was a moment of great social change in Britain, community living was an experiment that many at the time disapproved of. And although we’ve come a long way, echoes of the era persist in Assessment and Treatment Units, which continue to lock up around 3000 people in the UK, mostly unnecessarily. Mark has seen it all.
“It’s not that decision makers were bad people back in those days, they just didn’t know any better.
“Segregating people with learning disabilities – keeping them in ghettoes, if you like – had been the done thing since Victorian times. We carers cared just as much but there was no structure, no plan, no ambition.
“With 25 people being supported by just five staff there was really no chance of getting a personalised approach. You couldn’t choose what you wore, what time you ate or bathed, what time you went to bed.
“Have things got better? Well, the people we support are hardly ever at home now. They go bowling, to the pub for lunch and a drink. They learn to cook, have music and animal therapy.
“Alastair particularly loves swimming. Every day is an adventure. Tomorrow? – London Zoo.
“They may be non-verbal but that doesn’t stop them communicating just how much they love getting out and about. And with six residents being supported by four staff, we can offer a really personal service.
“Realistically, the only thing that limits our time out now is specialist changing facilities – we require hoists, which few venues have.”
Liz adds, “Well 30 years have now passed – some good and some not so good! Staff have come and gone, and we know we’re lucky to have had some giving so many years of service to the home.
“The Mulberries has gone from being run by the local Health Authority to now being a flagship for good support from Dimensions. Well done and congratulations to Alastair, Malcolm, Carla, Louise, Emma and Mark and all the staff past and present.”