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Care chiefs urged to reopen dementia care unit

By Will Clark

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Wick’s Town and County Hospital where the Harmsworth unit for people with dementia has been out of operation since July last year.
Wick’s Town and County Hospital where the Harmsworth unit for people with dementia has been out of operation since July last year.

The Harmsworth unit at the Town and County Hospital was set up to treat patients with cognitive and memory problems but it closed temporarily last year due to a lack of specialist staff.

Fourteen months on, there’s no sign of the ward reopening, with health chiefs not able to give any assurances over when or if it will be brought back into commission.

Patients from the far north who would have been treated there have since been referred to New Craigs Hospital in Inverness.

Sharon Swanson, whose family makes a 200-mile round trip twice a week to visit their mother who has an advanced form of dementia, said the Harmsworth unit needs to be reopened immediately, for the sake of patients and their families.

They received information the ward had recently been stripped, with mattresses being removed and used elsewhere.

As a result, they fear the ward won’t reopen and they will have to continue to travel to Inverness for the foreseeable future.

“There are beds sitting empty in the Harmsworth while people are on waiting lists to get into nursing homes in Caithness,” she said.

“My mother’s been in Inverness for 13 weeks because there is nowhere up here where she can get the round-the-clock care she needs.

“We travel twice a week to visit our mother – it is hellish driving that distance regularly.”

Mrs Swanson, of Argyle Square, Wick, was told by Highland Council’s social work department there is a place available for her mother at the town’s Seaview nursing home.

But due to an embargo which prevents residents moving in permanently following a recent Care Inspectorate report, the home can only take in new admissions on a respite basis.

Riverside House in Wick also has an embargo on new admissions, leaving Pentland View in Thurso as the only nursing home in the far north able to accept new admissions, but it has a waiting list of 14 people. It is estimated hospital patients could face waits of up to a year for a place in a home.

“We want NHS Highland to provide a place of care for dementia patients until vacancies arise at nursing homes in Caithness,” said Mrs Swanson.

“There needs to be a unit in Wick and that ward should not be lying empty.

“Caithness has an ageing population and the situation is only going to get worse. It is vital dementia care is provided here.

“I am concerned they are not going to open again, I think if they wanted to, they would have found staff.”

NHS Highland north area manager Bob Silverwood confirmed beds had been moved at the Harmsworth unit to allow estates personnel to carry out works.

He said no decision had been made regarding the future of the facility, but discussions would be held about it, along with the provision of all health services across Caithness.

“The Harmsworth was shut following severe difficulties in maintaining staffing levels,” he said

“This coincided with a policy decision across NHS Highland to concentrate acute inpatient treatment at New Craigs hospital, with return to local facilities or the community once the acute episode had been dealt with.

“The current situation in Caithness is further complicated by lack of available nursing home placements.”

He added: “There is no decision about the future use to be made of the Harmsworth unit.

“The use of all resources in Caithness is the subject of the Caithness redesign project. The Harmsworth will figure in that process. Various options have been generated by this process.”

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