I first became interested in Community Network as a fairly new recruit to the NHS when I attended one of many exhibitions and conferences in a quest for knowledge to help me in my new role. The then Chief Executive of Community Network (Pat Fitzsimmons) was hosting one of those small side meetings usually attended by one man and his dog or by people who are in the wrong room or persuaded by the event organisers to go and fill the room. We have all been there.
Pat’s session did attract me; I hasten to add, because she was talking about isolation and loneliness in elderly people. This struck a chord with me as my elderly mum was living in Devon and I was in Norfolk, and although I spoke to her every week I knew that she was lonely, which was bizarre as my five siblings and their families lived within 30 minutes of her. However they all had busy lives and Mum didn’t want to worry them; you know the story.
Would I have been a frequent visitor if I had lived that close? I like to think so but we all have busy lives and I didn’t want to worry Mum or be a nuisance; you know the story.
Anyway back to Pat and her talk about Community Network and the work they were doing with isolated and lonely older people, forming telephone groups. Some members of these groups frequently turned up at their local GP surgery or even presented at the local A&E from time to time with no real evidence of any physical illness and often called “frequent flyers” or the “worried well” in the NHS; they just wanted to talk to someone face to face and have that very basic, instinctive feeling of being alive and part of the human race.
You probably know someone just like this. It may even be your own Mum or relative. They don’t have to be elderly to feel alone and lacking that human interaction; what’s your child doing on that PC all night? Is it the appropriate interaction?
It struck me whilst Pat was talking, that the NHS needed to help these “frequent flyers” and I could see an opportunity to try and encourage NHS commissioners (still the PCT back then) to buy this service for these patients. I was also considering the carbon savings that could be accrued without these unnecessary trips to the local surgery and to A&E let alone the savings in NHS tariff charges (did you know that every GP attendance costs the NHS £25 and every hospital appointment costs the NHS £104) as lonely, isolated people tend to visit the local GP 19% more than the average patient.
At the end of Pat’s talk I joined the queue of people who wanted to ask her questions but were too shy to do so in open forum; why do we all do this? Pat looked at me rather quizzically when I explained my thoughts, as she had never really considered the NHS as her main message was aimed at the local authorities and their social services. Due to present at Islington Town Hall the following week, Pat asked me if I would join her to make the case for the NHS, which I agreed to do. Were we early adopters of the current health and social care integration?
As a result of this I was asked to consider becoming a Trustee and duly pitched up at my interview with the then Chair and his deputy. They kindly offered me a berth on the Board of Community Network and some four years later here I am as the Chair, having recruited an entirely new Board of Trustees, recruited a new Chief Executive, relocated the Head Office and completed redesigned the business model. I hadn’t intended to achieve all of these things however for those who know me know that I do not do things by half and also take on any task full on.
Being a Trustee has taught me loads of new skills and has enabled me to give something back and hopefully helped ensure that other people’s Mums and relatives are maybe not as lonely as mine and thousands of others like her. Mum died two years ago but she was not isolated at the end. I would recommend being a Trustee to anyone who has a few hours to spare a month and I cannot envisage not ever doing this in one way or another.
Stephen Heard, Chair of Trustees