Saturday 17 March 2018

Mary and Angela: helping people at home for decades

David Medcalf spoke to Bray Home Help's Angela Waters and Mary Tobin ahead of their upcoming retirements

Mary Tobin, Assistant Manager, who is also retiring from Bray Home Help
Mary Tobin, Assistant Manager, who is also retiring from Bray Home Help

'I have worked in the service for 36 years,' says Angela Waters in her matter-of-fact way, revealing an enviably consistent employment record in the organisation which she leaves after rising to the top post.

Thirty-six years - that means she has been involved in Bray Home Help for all but the first couple of years, as its origins may be traced back to sometime around 1978.

The initiative was first taken by social worker Ciaran Roche, who came across a family which needed simple assistance in a way that did not necessarily tick the obvious bureaucratic boxes.

The mother in this particular family had been ill and she was hard pressed to look after her children while on the road to recovery as her husband was unable to lend much of a hand because he was at work.

Ciaran realised that they needed some practical community support and he identified a woman who was ready to volunteer to fill the bill - the first of what was to prove to be a large number of home helps.

The old health centre on Bray's Killarney Road was at the heart of the initiative as he recruited a squad of individuals to work calling to dozen deserving clients.

Some of those on the books were families under stress for a variety of reasons while the rest were elderly citizens who required back-up with daily chores - washing, ironing, hoovering and the likes.

It was in 1980 that Angela Waters, who had arrived in Bray after marrying a man from the town, was taken on by the new service as one of the home helps.

The allowance payment on offer back then was, as she recalls, a pittance - barely enough money to cover bus fares - but the work suited someone with common-sense and a desire to be useful.

She remembers the first door she was sent to knock on, behind which was a family who had a little boy suffering from leukaemia, leaving the mother very stressed out.

Angela's arrival at least allowed the woman some break from the pressure to take a shower while there was a second adult in the house.

'It all sounds simple but she was in dire need,' she reflects as she looks back on supporting a family who left their mark on her, just as she must have been a welcome sight for them.

'You do develop a relationship but you are only there for one or two hours, once or twice a week - and you cannot take it home.'

Bray was the first town in County Wicklow, one of the first in Ireland, to have Home Help providing Good Samaritans wherever they are needed.

And Angela quickly learned that the quality of service was not only in the calibre of the helpers but also in the standard of the back-up providing them with training and matching them with appropriate clients.

Founder Ciaran Roche, by the way, went on to spread the message and the method to Greystones. Now retired and writing plays, he retains an interest as chairman of the organisation he did so much to establish.

Nostalgic observers may consider that there was a time when there was little need for any outside agency to lay on professional assistance for old age pensioners or for households in crisis.

The rose-tinted view suggests that in the good old days, neighbours or relatives were on hand run to the shops or cook meals.

Administrator Mary Tobin puts her finger on one how society had evolved to leaves more people vulnerable: 'In the seventies, things were changing and women were going back to work.'

The result was that friends and neighbours were often out during the days, with no time to check on the little old lady next door or to see how the family across the road was faring.

Meanwhile, the little old lady or the nice old gent next door were left further exposed by the fact that their sons and daughters were working in another part of Ireland or maybe another part of the world altogether.

The social structure of Bray has been particularly fluid, with an orgy of house building over the past three decades accommodating the overspill from the city of Dublin.

'There were always families without support,' insists Angela Waters realistically, not one to be overly sentimental about the past, 'and now more than ever. Friends and neighbours are out working and there is no neighbour next door you can leave the children with. The demand never goes down - we cannot keep up. The phones are hopping all the time.'

As she points out, young couples have to take a house wherever they can afford one, no matter whether they know anyone residing in the same area.

The outcomes can include social isolation - for ageing parents or for their offspring - and the demand for home help is certainly not on the decline.

The need is catered for by several privately run companies as well as by Bray Home Help, who have been operating discreetly for more than three decades from premises on the Vevay Road.

The offices are upstairs over a shop unit which has had a variety of tenants over the years while the organisation overhead has remained steadfastly in place.

Most of the clients are identified by the public health nurses who find elderly people struggling or by staff at hospitals who realise that discharged patients may be vulnerable.

'I am only here 26 years,' laughs Mary Tobin, who is also stepping down. She too recalls her first case, coming to the assistance of a mother coping with five young children on her own.

Bray Home Help, it seems, has a great record of holding on to staff, and having the same friendly face come to call is much appreciated by the clients. Some of the workers have been on the books for the past quarter century.

The process of pairing helpers to those helped has been mastered to a degree which any dating agency would envy.'We try to match personalities,' says Angela who realises that the appointed visitor will be appreciated as much for the chat as for the quality of their ironing or the efficiency of their vacuum cleaning.

These days, the staff all have formal qualifications in community support, backed by essential training in manual handling and patient moving skills to ensure there are no back injuries.

The volunteer ethos is long gone and the 'allowance' has been replaced by a proper wage though the good neighbour vibe remains undimmed.

Most of the work is now with elderly people in the Bray and Enniskerry area, with around 50 helpers on the books, most of them part-timers and most of them women.

Theirs is not an easy role as clients must often be attended to in the evenings or weekends - there is no nine-to-five routine.

In each case a care plan is drawn up for the client setting out the duties of the visiting helper and the duties to be undertaken. The HSE picks up the bill.

'Ninety-five percent of it is common-sense,' reckons Angela Waters, 'but you still have to have that piece of paper or you are not insured.'

As long ago as 1985 she switched to administrative duties, first as wages clerk and eventually as manager.

In that role, she insisted on visiting all the new clients, so that she could be aware of the reality of their situations.

The longest standing client was on her list for more than 20 years and the oldest was a bright 103-year-old requiring a little assistance at meal times.

The emphasis on the personal touch meant that it was not until about ten years ago that computers were brought in.

As Angela and Mary move on, they leave a set old-fashioned white-boards charting jobs being done and who should be doing them.

New manager Grainne McLoughlin is threatening (if that is the right word) to set up a website, but Grainne hopes fervently that the information-age technology will not alter the traditional spirit of the place.

'She is poised to bring Bray Home Help into the 21st century,' jokes Angela Waters on her way out. 'I know the service is going to change.'

A great deal depends on the amount of funding put up by the health service as the HSE pulls the purse strings: 'We are told what we have to do.'

The folk in Vevay Road must compete for business with a range of other providers in circumstances where it is increasingly difficult to find carers willing to work the odd hours involved and submit to the garda vetting essential before allowing them near vulnerable people.

'I will miss the place,' admits Mary, before her long time boss and friend Angela says: 'I know things are moving on.'

Wicklow People