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Bridging the social divides

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Heather Henry draws on her nursing experience in her work to strengthen communities

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm.

Heather Henry uses fictional stories with powerful messages as her inspiration for a book she is writing. She hopes this educational publication for nurses will teach them what she learnt through community nursing.

“My inspiration is Our Iceberg is Melting, which is about penguins who have to go through change because they can’t live on their iceberg anymore,” she says. “Animal Farm is another example.”

A large concern for Ms Henry is inequality in healthcare and life expectancy and she wants to educate nurses on how to address it.

After working with the Marmot review team, who had recently researched health inequality, she learnt the gap between the life expectancy of well-off and disadvantaged people was growing; those in the poorest neighbourhoods will, on average, die seven years earlier than those in the richest neighbourhoods.

“Marmot describes that as social injustice and it became very personal for me because I realised my neighbours were being short changed,” Ms Henry says.

They are being short changed by a lot. She describes her home town of Sale, Manchester, where people in private housing on one side of a road live for 10 years longer than the people in a large housing estate on the other side.

A former NHS clinical nurse, Ms Henry used what she learnt and what she saw to develop ideas for community improvement.

She says it about building strengths rather than fixing weaknesses.

“My view is that you create your future by talking about how it could be different,” Ms Henry says.

She says her company, Brightness Management, steers people to see a positive view of the way things could be, which is why she is optimistic about what lies ahead.

“Community nursing is the future,” she says. “It needs to be stronger because people are always better cared for in their own homes and in their own communities.”

Through her work, Ms Henry works in communities to bring people together and improve their lives, hopefully to make them less reliant on nursing care. For example, residents in Sale decided they wanted to focus on making their community “dementia-friendly” and have started work to make life easier and more comfortable for those affected.

Work so far includes getting local retailers to swipe cards and accept signatures when people with dementia cannot remember their PIN at the till, and a community choir for people with dementia and their carers to create a natural support group.

“We decided to join the Dementia Action Alliance and our plan is to train 1,000 people to become dementia friends,” Ms Henry says.

They are also going to develop dementia help points, at the church for example, for residents who can’t remember their way home.

“In old language, it used to be called ‘empowerment’ but I think the word has lost its meaning, so I don’t use it anymore,” she says.

When she considers the results of her methods, she thinks of a project in a town in east Lincolnshire; a town with haves and have-nots, and young people who do not get along with the older ones.

“There was no sense of community. What I did was bring residents together, find out what’s good about the town that we can build

on and what’s not good, so they can prioritise,” Ms Henry said.

The residents started setting priorities through a community newsletter and focusing on issues that affect wellbeing.

“I’ve seen people who have never led anything before lead these communities,” she says. “I’ve seen people taking control of their own lives.”

“I think one of the main problems with health professionals is that we care too much and this disables people. It’s a bit like beinga mother - you teach a child to tie its own shoelaces, you don’t keep tying them forever.”

Sara Barba

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