Uncertain future for Greenwich & Bexley hospice as it adapts to life after lockdown

Greenwich and Bexley Community Hospice staff
The hospice has been part of the local community since 1994

The world has been on pause for most of us since we were plunged into lockdown all those months ago. But for Greenwich and Bexley Community Hospice, the world has gone on – and the work it does is more important than ever.

Carers have spent the last three months trying to provide a little normality to patients at the end of their life, even organising a wedding for one couple in their home.

The new bride was overjoyed.

Carers have also had to teach others – NHS doctors and nurses – how to have the difficult conversations about the end of a loved one’s life. They’ve had to adopt remote working, had to tell families they can’t see their dying relatives – and had to teach patients how to use iPads.

And this is on top of patient numbers rising from an average of 400 to 650, and at a time where its funding has essentially been pulled overnight.

Usually, the hospice, which is based in Abbey Wood, makes two-thirds of its money through its charity shops and events. These have been closed and cancelled.

Kate Heaps, the chief executive of the hospice, told 853: “Essentially, the rug was pulled from under us overnight. We rely on two-thirds coming from the support of the local community. All our shops were shut, and events were cancelled, and that meant we were probably going to be down £1 million in the first three months.

“We are very busy and there has been a lot of change, we needed everyone to have the IT to work at home. A lot of change was happening very quickly and at the same time we were very worried because of our funding. We have had to work quite hard to bring in the money, we launched an emergency appeal and people have been very generous.

“We have had some additional emergency funding from the government but I don’t know how long that will last. We don’t know what the final funding will look like, whether this is it or whether we will have to give some back – it’s still very uncertain.

“But it feels less urgent right now, but I think throughout the the year this will be here for the long term.”

Greenwich and Bexley Community Hospice
Staff have had to adapt to new ways of working

The hospice has had to work hard to give the level of care and support it usually would during a period that restricts the interactions between loved ones.

iPads have replaced families surrounding the bed of a patient, and more are choosing to spend their time in their own home so they can choose how to see their loved ones.

Kate said: “Most people have chosen to stay at home so they can choose who they see.

“It’s been hard for patients, we have tried to make sure they have used iPads and stuff to communicate and it’s hard for the staff to say to people we can’t let your 15 family members come in, which is what we normally do. That’s what sets hospice care aside from institutional settings, visitors come and go and we are quite flexible.

“We have done a lot more work over the phone and video. That was a big change and it has since changed again. As time has gone on people have needed us more, and trusted that we had the right PPE and we put in the necessary things in place to protect us and them.

“We try and do our best. We did still facilitate people getting married at home during Covid-19, and making sure people get the things they want and need. The registrar came to the person’s house and did the wedding, which was unusual, and really meant a lot in that family.

“We married her and her husband – it does make a difference. We are still trying to make those little things, the things that are little for us but big in bereavement. The other big thing has been working collaboratively with other bereavement charities, we have set up a bereavement help point for anyone who is bereaved.”

Clearly, with more than 40,000 deaths being recorded in the space of three months across the country, there are thousands of newly bereaved families and friends.

The hospice has helped establish a bereavement help point, pointing people to services that will be able to help.

Greenwich and Bexley Community Hospice
Funding for the hospice dried up during lockdown with charity shops closed and fundraising events cancelled

With lockdown easing, the hospice is starting to reopen some of its shops – so far four of 17 are trading again.

But there is a long way to go and funding remains a concern – with annual events such as the Hospice’s garden tours obviously scrapped for this year. Online visitors are still welcome however, with a virtual garden tour available with a pay-what-you-can system.

“We’ve got the appeal and we have a virtual garden where we are asking people to donate whatever they want to donate as a thank you”, Kate said.

“Normally we have an open garden festival over the summer, this year obviously that wasn’t possible so we filmed them and there’s a link through to the website to it and if you’re sitting at home and not going out its a nice thing to pass the time with.”

It usually costs about £23,000 a day to keep the hospice running and, with the shops only now starting to tentatively reopen with fewer customers through the door, cash is going to be tight.

TOM BULL is a freelance journalist and former local democracy reporter in SE London.

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