Seanad debates

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

7:10 pm

Photo of John WhelanJohn Whelan (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I have long been of the view that how we treat our senior citizens in the autumn of their years will be one of the crucial yardsticks by which we will be judged not only as a Government but as a society.

Every since I was fortunate to be elected to the Seanad, almost four years ago, I have always tried to address issues by looking at the bigger picture and at policies in a constructive fashion rather than going down the road of personal interests or what people might refer to as parochial issues. However, I must declare an personal interest in the issue I am raising but, nonetheless, it pertains to policy.

I grew up in the town of Monasterevin, went to school there and have many family and friends still living there. It is a town that is noted and renowned for its community spirit, for the manner in which it rallies around families and has great credentials in terms of volunteerism and being a community that puts it best foot forward at all times.

A great reflection of that is that as far back as 1996 the Friends of the Elderly in the town pooled their resources in terms of materials, energy, efforts, skills and finances and established a day-care centre for the elderly in the town in the house of the former general practitioner on Drogheda Street. It was an appropriate setting. I knew the GP at that time, Dr. Kirby. He was a well regarded and respected man. As a young boy I had a newspaper round in the town and I delivered the newspaper to his house on Drogheda Street. The House was put to very good use. It was renovated, upgraded and has been used since 1996 as a very significant day-care centre for the elderly who go there on a daily basis to socialise, learn new skills and to congregate with people of their own age group.

However, I am disappointed and dismayed about what has happened. The HSE indicated some months ago that the property had fallen into some disrepair and that there were issues regarding the wiring and electrical works which had to be repaired. That work was under way and being conducted by the local committee when the HSE intervened and said that it would take over the works and that the day care centre would have to be transferred temporarily. Through the good co-operation of the local GAA club, Monasterevin GAA, they agreed to that and relocated the day-care centre activities to the GAA centre on a temporary basis. However, to our horror and disappointment, in recent weeks the HSE put a stop to the works, turned a key in the door and last week it had the electricity disconnected to the original property. I am alarmed by this. What has happened is sharp practice. It was an underhand way of doing business. It certainly was not up-front.

I am trying to be constructive, and I sincerely hope the Health Service Executive is not trying to balance its year-end books on the backs of the elderly people of this parish.

I am told it has informed the local committee that the cost of the works required now are of the magnitude of €100,000. If that is the case, that money must be found because the day care centre cannot operate on a long-term basis in the Monasterevin GAA club. That would not be appropriate for anyone. I implore the Minister of State to intervene, bring some clarity to the situation and help provide the necessary funding because it is unconscionable that the town that had a day care centre for this length of time would lose a service which is so important to the community.

7:20 pm

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Whelan for raising this very important matter. It is clear from listening to his account the personal and deep feelings he has towards this day care centre and the important service it provides for the people of Monasterevin. I know the Senator declared an interest but being able to bring personal experience to formulate policy is a strength in our political system and one I hope will continue.

The overarching policy of the Government is to support older people to live in dignity and independence in their own homes and communities for as long as possible and to support access to quality long-term residential care where this is appropriate. The Health Service Executive is responsible for the delivery of health and personal social services, including home help, home care packages, meals on wheels, respite or day care and a range of other community-based supports. The executive works continually to develop the services provided to ensure they match the needs of older people as much as possible.

New approaches to home support, increased use of technology and new residential models may all have a part to play. Access to day centres can no doubt make an important contribution by providing invaluable support, advice and social interaction for older people who may, for any number of reasons, be experiencing isolation and loneliness. One cannot underestimate the importance of being able to bring people together and the social importance of such a day care centre.

Since 1997, Monasterevin day care centre had been operating as a social outlet twice weekly from a large property owned by the HSE on Drogheda Street, Monasterevin. I would emphasise, however, that the day centre has never provided medical or personal care, and Senator Whelan acknowledges that. I understand that the building was also used by a number of groups locally for events and activities unrelated to the day care centre. This included some events and activities of which the HSE was unaware.

In 2013, the executive became aware of safety issues relating to the electrical wiring on the premises. Following the completion of some remedial works the HSE employed a contractor to carry out a fire safety inspection of the building. The building was assessed as being unsafe and, as the Senator rightly said, the estimated cost for the scope of the works required to bring the building to current health and safety standards is in excess of €100,000. The HSE made a decision that the investment required cannot be justified given the level of services provided by the HSE there, and a representative of the Monasterevin group was advised last October of this decision.

I do not need to tell the Senator about the current economic and budgetary pressures, and notwithstanding the better economic news recently, resources remain tight across a number of areas. Many areas continue to face real challenges in meeting demands on their services. I understand that Monasterevin day care currently operates its service from a local GAA centre two days per week. The HSE provides the group with a grant aid of €3,700 per year in support of those activities, and we will continue to support this service.

I am pleased to advise the Senator that the HSE has informed the Department of Health that it is willing to meet the group to ensure the continuation of the service and explore the use of any other facility that could accommodate it. I hope through Senator Whelan's good offices that that meeting can take place and that the HSE will, with the group, explore the possibilities and discuss the provision of services and how best to go forward from here. I thank the Senator for bringing the matter to my attention and I will convey his sentiments to the Minister.

Photo of John WhelanJohn Whelan (Labour)
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I thank the Minister for the reply. It provides clarity but I am dismayed and disappointed. I will not leave it at that. The grant of €3,700 per annum is paltry considering the scale and extent of services. The HSE is downplaying the significance of the role of this day care centre because it goes well beyond the remit. In terms of the well-being of the senior citizens who enjoy these facilities, it plays a central role in keeping them hale, hearty and out of hospital and other institutions that would cost considerably more.

If the HSE cannot come up with the €100,000, it is incumbent upon it to upgrade the existing building, which is important and very accessible to all the people in the heart of the town, or assist in sourcing an alternative building as suitable premises. It should have done that in advance of essentially hoodwinking the local community, getting the elderly citizens into a new premises and then closing the door behind their backs. I am not happy with the way the HSE went about its business in this case, and I will not be leaving it so.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I have no doubt the Senator will continue to pursue this matter and fight for the people in that community, but let us try to look at the common ground here and find a way forward. There is an acknowledgement from the HSE, the Senator and the wider community that this is an important service that we want to see continued within the community. There is also a reality that the building is deemed unsafe and the HSE says it cannot foot the bill to make it safe. We also have an offer from the HSE to the Department of Health to examine, with representatives of the group, the continuation of the services it is providing and explore the possibility of other facilities in the area that may be appropriate. I have no doubt the Senator and that group will engage with the HSE. It is important that we bang heads together to see if a way forward can be found. From the Senator recalling the events, I have no doubt that the services are very important. I welcome the opportunity for the HSE to engage with the group. I will convey the Senator's thoughts and the transcript of this debate to the Minister for Health.