A place to breathe: the critical role of day services.

On Wednesday I chaired an open meeting for those interested in the role and value of day services for older people. During the virtual meeting I heard of some of the very real challenges facing services which in large part had stepped down during the pandemic and which have struggled to be re-introduced as things have improved. At that meeting Scottish Care has undertaken to do some more co-ordinated work on evidencing the benefit and the essential critical role of such services and we would hope to produce a short briefing paper in the near future.  In this blog I want to offer some personal reflections on why I think this Cinderella service needs to be more valued, appreciated and understood.

My first encounter with day services in a building-based sense was probably close to three decades ago. At that time, I came to the service where I was to spend a day with some very entrenched suppositions and stereotypes. The phrase ‘adult baby-sitting’ may have accurately described my views which were that these were places where people attended in order to be ‘looked after’ and ‘cared for’ in part to give their relatives and families a rest or respite. I could not have been more wrong. What I found through the doors was a place staffed by professional and skilled individuals and many volunteers which was a destination longed for and looked forward to by many of those who attended. It was a place where the conditions that individuals may have been living with were supported and in no small part alleviated. As one family member said to me, ‘By coming here John is able to meet friends, to socialise but much more importantly to be able through activities and stimulation to keep his brain going and to keep the dementia at bay.’ It was quite clear to me that far from places where people were placed to ‘rest and remain’ these day services were environments which allowed folks to live well, be fed well and nourished and which stretched and stimulated individuals.

I also became aware that in an era of acute loneliness and isolation that local community-based day centres offered an oasis of company, a place to be with others, to no longer be imprisoned by the crowding in of the four walls or to be controlled by the routine of the box in the corner.

That first encounter shattered my stereotypes and convinced me then as now that day services far from being incidental or marginal to social care provision, are essential services and supports that enable people to remain healthy, mentally, and physically; connected to others and which enable independent living in the truest sense of contribution and choice.

I am not alone in such an analysis. After a three-year research project from 2014-17 researchers showed the very clear benefits of day services for attenders, family carers and those who volunteered in such environments. Indeed, the study argued that there was a massive untapped potential for such environments to foster better preventative care and support, to enhance independence still further and to as a result contribute to significant fiscal savings by preventing early use of more intensive social care and health care to say nothing for how much better people who used day care centres felt and how they assisted them to remain healthy.

The benefits of socialisation, of appropriate care, granting respite to family carers, neurological stimulation, enhancing nutrition and health by activity and diet are all evident in day services. One focus of many is the enhanced value given to physical activity in its various forms around which there is mounting evidence that such physical activity can aid the prevention of neurological decline, but also results in a decreased risk of fall, improves cognitive function, improves sleep, and aids coronary health.

Day services need to come out of the shadow and be recognised as a critical arm of enabling effective social care to allow older citizens to flourish. Commissioners of such care and those who assess individuals need both to recognise the essential and substantial benefits of such models of support and need to stop immediately reducing provision based on a lack of evidence and a failed understanding of both personal and fiscal benefit. As the researchers quoted earlier noted:

‘There is a need to look beyond the obvious costs when commissioning or reviewing day centre provision; centres offer added value beyond social inclusion, care, stimulating activities and respite. Commissioning without fully understanding their outcomes contravenes evidence-based commissioning principles by relying on individual knowledge which may be based on assumptions or experience of different client groups.’

On the eve of Carers Week, I recall one of the earliest conversations I had with someone whose wife used a day service for older people. He said that the time and space allowed his wife to breathe, to be with friends and acquaintances, to be away from him in a manner which kept their loving alive and their togetherness solid. He also said that as a carer it allowed him to take a break and if he chose either to be with others or do his own thing – and to do so without guilt but in the knowledge she was supported, understood and well cared for. It kept him going in the love of care. She, meanwhile, said much the same. She felt that the environment of the centre allowed her to breathe and do and be who she wanted to be rather than be the object or subject of care and support.

I am deeply concerned at hearing this week of the threats to existing day care provision and am convinced that all must be done to ensure these essential services not only remain but flourish, thrive and develop. They are an untapped potential which can benefit so many more than they already do. Such breathing places deserve to be given the opportunity to enrich the lives of those who need them and not to be continually struggling for the breath of their own survival.

Donald Macaskill