Richard Gray is a Service Manager at an Aspens residential home in Bognor Regis and an NHS staff counsellor. Here he talks about life in lockdown as a carer to clients with learning disabilities and autism - and wonders whether the coronavirus crisis will alter attitudes towards the care industry

Next month I’ll have worked for Aspens for twelve years, having been at Autism Sussex before the charity merged and Sussex Autistic Community trust before that. I’ve seen plenty of changes in my time but, of course, nobody’s been trained or prepped to deal with a crisis like this. You just do the best you can.

"We have six clients living full time in this home, two women and four men who have lived here together for a good number of years, as well as several staff who’ve worked here for a long time. It feels like a family now – when loved ones send in sweets or chocolates for a treat, they send enough for everyone. We’re like one unit.

Tackling a day at a time

"The staff have dealt brilliantly with this crisis over the last couple of months. They’ve focused on adapting all our activities to things that can be done without leaving the house and they’re working exceptionally hard to help our clients make sense of what’s going on in a fast-changing environment. It makes me proud to see how they just ‘get on with it’, accepting all sorts of added difficulties with a shrug and a wry “that’s life” smile.

"For me, the most important thing we can do is keep a sense of calm in the house. As staff, we inevitably bring in some stresses from the outside world – it is hard to watch the news without feeling stressed these days! People have the added worry of not seeing family members, knowing people who are falling ill, worrying about falling ill themselves, the same things everybody’s worried about.  But we remember the need to be mindful that our clients pick up stress very easily; if you have autism or learning difficulties, it can be a lot harder to cope. An absolute priority for us is to maintain a feeling of calm within the house - whatever is going on outside, this needs to be a haven.

The hunt for PPE

"I suppose we’re like swans at the moment; keeping things calm on the surface, while we’re running round like crazy dealing with a myriad of problems behind the scenes! There have been some real difficulties over the last couple of months, like the ongoing balancing act of the clients’ mental welfare, weighing up their anxieties against the actual risks. The availability of adequate PPE and knowing whether we should be using it has also been a real cause for concern.

"At the end of the day, it simply comes down to what’s available, so when we put in orders, we just don’t know what’s going to arrive and what isn’t. We have enough to be able to operate safely, but like the rest of the care industry we’re sourcing what we can each day, figuring out ways to ‘make do’ and get by. Like everything right now, it’s about adapting to the situation.

Carers - 15 minutes of fame

"We do the Carers’ Clap every Thursday and it always makes me wonder whether, after this crisis has passed, people will have a different attitude towards the care industry. As well as working for Aspens, a couple of days a week I’m a counsellor for NHS staff at a local hospital. I work with a broad variety of issues and life stresses, which have grown during this pandemic, and I’m in an interesting position seeing at first hand the stresses workers are facing in both the NHS and the wider care industry.

"They are heroes and have always been, in my view, and it’s a lovely moment in time to see people stand on their doorsteps to applaud them. But while of course it’s great to be acknowledged for the long hours we’re doing, and the extra risks we’re taking, when things go back to normal we won’t expect people to be on their front doorsteps banging pots and pans for us anymore! It would be nice to think, though, that it’s more than just a ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ scenario; that there will be some enduring appreciation for the work that we do, perhaps some more respect for the industry.

Until we're allowed out...

"Now, it’s just a matter of taking one day at a time until we come out the other side. We help clients to deal with the uncertainty by showing them the new date on a calendar each time there’s a government update, so they can see in black and white when it’s likely they might be allowed out, when they might be able to see their parents again.

"In the world at it is right now, there’s nothing more we can do. None of us know when things are going to go back to normal. In the meantime we’ll do our best to help our clients, and help each other, to cope with each day as it comes."