Lay of the Land: Taking care that caring isn't too careful
The fog was so thick one recent morning that I could barely see beyond my backyard. Except for Mr Heron, standing hunched on the riverbank opposite like a cinema usher saying "tickets, please".
The fog had lifted by the time I reached The Watergarden Cafe, its glorious gardens providing the perfect vista to enjoy autumn. But this place is special for other reasons. Like the fact that there is no pressure to make a profit, yet staff members like Siobhan still constantly check that punters have everything they need. Like most of the staff, Siobhan is a resident of the local Camphill community, one of 18 such groups that were established in Ireland in 1979. Its "life-sharing" ethos hinges on carers living with children and adults that have special needs, thereby enabling them to be part of the wider community.
These carers could themselves be called special, because they value their vocation over finances. For in a world where our worth is all too often measured by our wage packet, they do not receive a salary. Their living costs are covered, along with expenses such as an occasional holiday - if that's what you could call a once yearly trip home.
Some have shared with special needs house-mates for decades because they are "very idealistic", as one volunteer put it, to the point that "maybe people think we were naive. I loved the community spirit, the way of doing things together and sharing our lives with people with special needs."
But while the Camphill group in this country town continues to thrive, a shadow hangs over the future of 17 long-term residents and volunteers in the neighbouring community of Ballytobin. The HSE has assumed control, following a series of critical reports by the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA). It listed a series of breaches, including allegations of abuse, intrusive care practices and alleged assaults. To date, none of these allegations have been proven.
No one disputes the vital importance of health and safety, or regulations to protect the residents of such communities. Yet in some instances, can safeguards sometimes cross the line into curtailing lives that are already limited enough. And one size surely does not fit all when it comes to the unique nature of these types of communities. It is a belief that is gaining traction worldwide, thanks to Professor Eileen Munro. She was commissioned by British parliament in 2010 to investigate mounting concerns around what she refers to as a "compliance culture". The resulting Munro Report criticises the box-ticking and paperwork structure that she claims can hinder learning and easily lose touch with the lived reality of people on the ground. It also highlights the way compliance often achieves the very reverse of what is intended; leading to low staff morale, high absenteeism and the least experienced people doing the front-line work. For as that heron knows, you need to keep your eye on your goal, even during those times that it's hard to see.