Tuesday 27 June 2017

Only child sold family firm to aid people affected by Alzheimer's

But chief executive faces constant funding battle to keep organisation open, writes Siobhan Creaton

As an only child, John Grant had his future career mapped out from the age of 14 when he started working at the family's drapers shop in Claremorris, but his father-in-law's struggle with Alzheimer's disease sent him in a different direction.

Today, 60-year-old Grant is chief executive of Western Alzheimers. It is a business that has been going for 21 years providing essential respite services for those suffering from Alzheimer's in Galway, Mayo and Roscommon.

Employing about 160 staff, this year it expects to help more than 300 families who either seek respite for their relatives at its premises in Ballindine and Athenry, or who need help to care for them in their own home. It also has plans to open a home in Roscommon.

Grant says it has been a struggle to establish the organisation and finding money to keep it open is a constant challenge.

There was little information available about the disease when he started out.

"There was a terrible stigma attached to it," he says. "It had been a hush- hush disease. In fact, people didn't think it was a disease, but just something that was happening to dad or mam."

He loved "hounding" politicians, he says, and was never afraid to canvass anyone for help; and those skills would stand him in good stead as he decided to help others in a similar situation.

The local health board told him to do a feasibility study, he recalls. At the time, the medical profession remained unconvinced about the benefits of respite care, warning this experiment could disorientate the patients. But Grant ploughed ahead and rented a house in the town in 1996 and has never looked back.

He was ready to work as a full-time advocate for those suffering from Alzheimer's and their families and sold the family business, founded in 1911, to run it.

No one knew how many people were affected by Alzheimer's then and in 1994, Grant says, the Taoiseach Enda Kenny was the first politician to ask a question in the Dail about how many people in the three western counties had the disease.

"Then, he was told it was 4,000. Now it is more than 5,000," says Grant.

He pays tribute to local radio stations and newspapers for raising awareness about the disease over the past couple of decades. In recent times, Finance Minister Michael Noonan talking about his wife Florence has provided a voice for carers, he says.

"There are thousands of Michael Noonan's around Ireland," according to Grant and Alzheimer's is a problem that is going to increase dramatically in the years ahead as the population ages. It is also affecting younger people; Western Alzheimers' youngest clients have been aged between 38 and 45.

Despite this, no Irish government has ever come up with a policy for dealing with Alzheimer's.

"It really annoys me that governments have not been addressing this.

"Why wait until it happens? Hospitals will be inundated with people in the future," he warns.

Western Alzheimers gets a grant every year from the Health Service Executive (HSE) that covers about a third of its costs and relies on fundraising to cover the rest. It costs €90,000 a month to run and each bed costs about €1,100 a week, but it only charges €265 for a week's respite.

"If you make it too dear for people, they won't be able to afford it," Grant explains.

These services are provided at a "minimal" cost to the State, he says. "This is a business that costs an awful lot of money to run. There are no short cuts. You could cut staff, but then you wouldn't have the level of staff needed to interact and keep clients stimulated."

Last year, it raised €1.2m through fundraising, but Grant is concerned for the organisation's future. Running a business that is 70pc reliant on fundraising is problematic. The HSE has also tried to cut its contribution in recent years, which is ironic as it refers 70pc of the patients to Western Alzheimers every year and increasingly so since it has closed beds at nearby hospitals in Galway.

Today, Western Alzheimers is an integral part of the communities it serves, employing people who live locally.

Grant says it will always help the communities that support its efforts, ensuring it buys as much as it can in the towns where the homes are based.

As people have less money to donate to worthy causes, the organisation is grateful for their help.

"This is my dream job. I would hate to be doing something humdrum," he says. "The next person to come after me will have to have a degree to do what I do," he suggests.

Irish Independent

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