Thursday 17th May 2018

Little Harbour is one of the three hospices operated by Children’s Hospice South West, and the only one in Cornwall. When Alice Merrett came to speak to Lerryn WI and their guests about the work of the hospice, we did not expect a very cheerful evening. However, it turned out to generate as much pleasure as sadness. What Alice described for us was, as she said, a very happy place.

Eighty per cent of the care offered at Little Harbour is not end-of-life support, but respite care – an opportunity for all the parents and children to have a happy time together, away from the stresses, frustration and exhaustion that can characterise the home life of parents struggling to make a living, run a household and provide love and care for siblings while trying also to meet the needs of a child with severely life-limiting conditions.

Children’s Hospice South West was started 27 years ago by the current CEO and his late wife, two of whose three children needed  hospice care, but the whole family had to travel for up to a day to reach it.  They decided that the South West should have its own provision, the aim being that no family should have to travel more than 90 minutes to reach the care they need. There are now hospices in Barnstaple, Bristol and Cornwall.

Little Harbour supports 110 children at a time, together with their families, and each child and family can attend for up to 14 days a year. It’s no coincidence that this is about the length of many family holidays; a holiday is what is provided here, a cheerful and restorative break from what can be an almost unbelievably hard life.

Little Harbour looks indeed more like a pleasant family hotel than a medical facility. Apart from essential hoists, there is no medical equipment on display and staff wear no uniforms. The children’s bedrooms look like children’s bedrooms in any loving home. However, many of these children have severely compromised immune systems; a lot of care and imagination has gone into ensuring that there can be fluffy toys and soft play areas even within what has to be a clinically clean environment.

The respite is for everyone, not just the child who is ill. Parents have a chance to be just parents for a while, playing with and enjoying all their children while someone else provides the exhausting 24-hour care that many parents have to split between the two of them on top of doing everything else.

It’s not surprising that families like these suffer a divorce rate far above the national average. Here, a mother and father can head for the Jacuzzi together with a bottle of wine, free of guilt for a while, knowing that their children are all safe and happy. They can even have a precious lie-in if they want to, in accommodation whose quality makes it a treat. Lunch and dinner are provided and cooked for the guests, but not breakfast.

Children here also get a chance to be just children, not patients. There are special sensory areas and a wonderful messy playroom where children can explore the world and find ways to express their reactions to it. The atmosphere in the shots we saw seemed very calm and quiet, but we were assured that it’s not always so – especially during music therapy!

The children with illnesses are not the only ones whose needs are met. There are also dedicated sibling workers present, providing if necessary the concentrated adult attention these children so often lack, and without their having to feel guilty about burdening their parents.  For them, too, it’s a respite.

The fact that death is quite close for some children is not hidden, despite the overall emphasis on enjoying life, and there is a special room where a dead child can be laid out and visited for up to 10 days in surroundings specially adapted to the tastes and feelings of that child and family.

We were not astonished to discover that the three hospices together cost £9.8million a year to run. We were more than glad to make a donation.

Ann Henderson

Lerryn WI

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