Linda Colling: Centre heading for meltdown?

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IS it in meltdown? It certainly looks as if the writing is on the wall for the Alzheimer’s Society in Sunderland.

Sufferers and their families are reeling at plans to cut their vital lifeline with a raft of spending cuts. Is this the thin end of the wedge?

And while the cuts have been blamed on a “significant reduction in funding” from statutory authorities, the future of this Society appears to have been uncertain ever since two years ago when it became centrally managed, top-down from London, some 240 local committees disbanded at the stroke of a pen and branches merged into large regional centres.

Then it was largely reliant, not on statutory donations but voluntary contributions.

The cuts will severely reduce the crucial help so many depend on and begs the question how long before the doors of the Princess of Wales Centre close – not just as they did two years ago locking out volunteers and members – but for good?

Already the the handyman, cook and an outreach befriending worker have been paid off.

Just what will go to the wall has yet to be decided. Will it be the memory cafes some 20 couples value, or will it be another lifeline – the lunch clubs which give carers much needed respite?

And maybe the writing has been on the wall ever since the volunteers and the former branch chairman, Ernie Thompson, who started the Sunderland branch in 1987, were so shamefully locked out and everything in Ernie’s words “ransacked and seized.”

And that was the thanks he got for his years of unstinting, unpaid work with a branch that he had built up until it had an annual turnover of £400,000.

As for the £80,000 funds that had been raised locally, many Wearsiders intended it to be spent here.

Fear and loathing set in then at the Alzheimer’s Society nationally, as volunteers rejected the charity’s new-found “professionalism”, saying it ignored local needs.

Worryingly, what is happening in Sunderland appears to be also happening elsewhere. Derwentside has folded while the Teesside branch has gone from being one of the most successful in the country with 23 staff, to come September having just one member of staff. Surely that can’t all be down to the financial situation?

It is high time the Government launched an independent review into what is going on in this charity.

It’s a very peculiar kind of charity and all very disturbing when there are more and more people, ever younger, developing dementia and the very charity that should be caring for their needs and their carers, so strapped for cash.

Maybe it’s another case, as with certain other charities, where everything is centralised, more money going to managers with fancy titles and fancy cars, instead of on the services.

Hollow indeed the words of Gil Chimon, Director North of the Alzheimer’s Society, who in November 2009 after seizing control of the Sunderland branch said: “In no way are our proposals an attempt to diminish local activity. We are seeking to extend our services to a much larger group of people.”

The reverse has been true. It appears that the Society is living on the reputation so wonderfully built up by Ernie and his volunteers before he formed a breakaway group Action on Dementia Sunderland.

Now its a case of dwarves living on the shoulders of giants since the take-over, considering in two years how all that has been built up is now disappearing.

Apart from that £80,000 that was raised to be spent locally, there is now no local accountability. Nobody in Sunderland has any say in the decisions that are affecting Sunderland Alzheimer’s Society.

Once, if people didn’t like what the local committee was doing they could vote them out. Now no-one can do anything. It was a foolish strategy at such a time of financial constraint, to get rid of the very successful, moral help of cherished local branches.

At the meeting this week at the Princess of Wales Centre outlining the crisis cuts, it was a local manager who had to take the flak, not a senior manager. The latest cuts will discourage plenty in need of help from getting in touch, thinking “what’s the point?”

And let it not be forgotten that it was the good people of Sunderland who raised the entire £80,000 to buy the Princess of Wales Centre, which before the property market slumped was valued at £400,000.

A main concern is that this centre could be run down to such a degree and the building already jaded and without a handyman, fall into such decline that it is no longer financially viable and will be sold off to the highest bidder.