Getting to know services users and understanding their character is the way forward for learning disability care

In this blog, Mandy Chalk, a team leader at MyLife’s new bungalows for people with learning disabilities who require intensive support in Hartlepool, details how the service is implementing a community-support approach.

It was a friend who mentioned that MyLife in Hartlepool was recruiting, and when I read the application pack, it seemed I’d found an organisation that shared my approach.

I was returning to care work after previously losing heart with organisations where the idea that the individual came first was being lost in favour of ‘one-size-fits-all’. I wanted to work for an organisation that shared my philosophy and ideals, and had given up for a while.

Initially, I had applied to be a care worker at MyLife, but the interviewer must have recognised my passionate approach to personalised care, and suggested I’d be better suited to being a team leader. And that’s the role I was appointed to.

For me this says a lot about how MyLife works – they pay attention to the individual, and work with the grain to support them.

Too often, I’d seen workers in the sector doing things in a certain way just because ‘that’s how they’d always been done’, or they didn’t have the right training, or the environment just wasn’t set up to do better.

If someone they were looking after had an outburst of anger or frustration, too often the only technique in their toolbox was physical restraint, so they’d restrain them, and the situation would just become more fraught, with no real solution.

Over time, that kind of behaviour can build up and lead to the person being sectioned and taken to an acute mental health unit, where they were deprived of the opportunities most people have to develop their skills and enjoy life. Then when they leave the unit, the cycle would start again.

This is exactly the systemic problem highlighted in 2014 by Sir Stephen Bubb in his post-Winterbourne View report, Winterbourne View - Time For Change.

But dealing better with those small, everyday incidents is the key to breaking this cycle. I’ve found there’s always a trigger for those kinds of reactions. Sometimes you can discover that trigger from the reports that always accompany people being bounced round the social care system, but frequently it means spending time with them, getting to know them and understanding their personality and character.

At MyLife, we work in teams with the same person all the time, so we can build trust and consistency, which means we can gradually work with them to introduce change successfully. That can be difficult as often the nature of a person’s learning disabilities makes control and choice a big issue. It takes time, but the effort is repaid many times over.

Thinking about the bigger picture also takes experience and training. Everyone here has had intensive bespoke training in techniques like diversion and touch, working to the industry standards.

You have to be alert for the signs – triggers – and anticipate them. A hand on a shoulder, or a diversion from the cause of the stress at the right moment can prevent outbursts of anger and frustration.

We build our caring round the person, rather than fitting them into prefabricated services that aren’t quite right for them. It’s not about being limited by what you can’t do, it’s about what you can do.

The physical environment is vital too: the development at Burbank in Hartlepool has been specifically designed with layouts and colour schemes that research shows help people with learning disabilities to develop their skills and interests.

Rather than relying on hard-pressed carers doing their best with insufficient training and support, MyLife has developed a personalised approach to training with an experienced panel of experts, including Professor Barry Carpenter OBE.

The philosophy behind MyLife is: working with their hopes and aspirations, providing quality housing, engaging with the community around them, making care personal, basing care on evidence and providing opportunities for happiness.

That’s the theory.

But for me, the proof is in the practice – and that means making care about the individual, from beginning to end.