Residents at all 18 residential care homes that had been earmarked for closure will no longer have to seek alternative accommodation after the health minister announced a reprieve.
Edwin Poots visited four of the care homes yesterday to tell residents they would not be moved while they wished to remain.
Westlands in Cookstown, Thackeray Place in Limavady, Rosedale in Antrim and Pinewood in Ballymena had been earmarked for closure, along with other homes in the Western and Northern health trust areas, last April.
That announcement led to protests by relatives – angry at the upheaval involved for their elderly family members.
Yesterday Josie McCann, whose 100-year-old mother is a resident at Thackeray Place, said the decision is “fantastic news”.
Describing the moment of the announcement, Ms McCann said: “Everybody broke out clapping. All the residents were gathered in the room at the time.”
After the minister’s tour of the care homes, a spokesman for the Department of Health said Mr Poots was “keen to hear the views and experiences of residents and their families”.
On Thursday Minister Poots confirmed residents in all 18 homes would be allowed to stay there as long as they wished.
“The wellbeing and treatment of older people is a top priority for me and I want to reassure residents that they will be allowed to remain in their home for as long as they wish and so long as their needs can continue to be met there,” he said.
“Yesterday I visited a number of care homes in the Northern and Western Trust areas as I was keen to hear the views and experiences of residents and their families. It is clear that residents value the friendships they have within the home, the closeness to family and connections with the community, as well as an appreciation of the quality of care and an attachment to the staff.
Ms McCann said she was happy her mother was “going to stay here for the rest of her days”, and added: “That worry’s not hanging over me that she’ll be moved or anything.”
She also told the BBC that the staff were “really ecstatic with joy because some of them were wondering if they should look for jobs elsewhere”.
Last April’s decision by the Western Trust – proposing the closure of all of its residential care homes – followed similar announcements by the Northern and Southern trusts.
The public outcry led to a consultation process being set up which concluded in March.
When the original decision was announced, First Minister Peter Robinson said that although he backed the closure proposals generally, he added: “I am not sure how any trust can justify the closure of all their homes and think they need to seriously look at that again.”
Mr Robinson also said he recognised the emotional nature of the issue and said it must be handled “very carefully and very sensitively”.
His remarks came after Mr Poots said he accepted that the handling of the issue had been “disastrous” – apologising to anyone who had been distressed by the news.
Yesterday, TUV leader Jim Allister dismissed the reprieve announcement as “electioneering” and said it needed closer examination.
“If he does not reverse his policy of blocking new admissions to all these homes, and others, then the announcement does not provide an assured long term future for the homes,” Mr Allister said.
“In the Northern Trust area Mr Poots had advance knowledge of the intended 100 per cent closure, and did not intervene until forced by the public outcry. To now say that he wishes all current residents to be able to stay, while welcome and a relief for those families, does not guarantee the future of these homes unless he allows new admissions.”
Mr Poots said there is significant spare capacity in homes and he has tasked officials with examining how to make best use of statutory residential homes.
“I am keen to see an expanded role for care homes - providing respite care and given the current pressures in our hospital system, potential step-down provision following discharge from hospital,” he said.
“My officials will also explore the potential for residential facilities to serve as broader hubs for older people’s services.
“The onus is on the HSC to demonstrate to older people that new alternatives to statutory homes are a better option for them. This will require the full range of choices, such as assisted living, actually being available to people across all parts of the province.
“I have had an initial briefing and will receive the full consultation analysis from the HSC Board in due course. Trusts’ admissions policies are being reviewed and I will consider the recommendations from the Board on this matter.”