Posted: 09.01.20 at 08:52 by Hannah Corfield
2019 was a remarkable year for Heather Penwarden, culminating in her inclusion on the New Year’s Honours list, having been awarded an Order of the British Empire (BEM).
Earlier in the year, Honiton Dementia Action Alliance, of which Heather is Chair, was honoured with the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Services – click the red button below to read more.
Honiton Nub News caught up with Heather at her home in Awliscombe to find out what has motivated her to dedicate a lifetime to supporting vulnerable members of the community.
Having moved to Honiton in 1985 as a newly qualified staff nurse, Heather was posted at what used to be the Exminster Hospital, a Victorian-era asylum.
She explains, “the ward I worked on all had dementia and they all came from Honiton, because in those days, when people living with dementia couldn’t cope within their families and communities they got sent to a psychiatric asylum and that’s how we looked after people – there were no facilities within the community.”
This all changed when the ward in Exminster Hospital was closed and patients were moved to Honiton Hospital, to a brand-new building called the Bungalow (now Hayden’s Court).
She went on, “I was part of the nursing team that was responsible for choosing the furnishings and also creating an ethos of how we were going to look after people with dementia; within their own communities, which meant the families could maintain relationships with them.”
The Bungalow was considered to be a leading model in the nation-wide move away from asylum care to ‘care in the community’.
“We were pioneers within the movement, being the first in Devon, and even had people from America come over to see what we were doing,” she adds.
“So that was my start in Honiton, as a newly trained psychiatric nurse in my early twenties. Our philosophy right from the beginning was to find out what people really wanted and help them achieve that, as opposed to tell them what they needed.”
Heather was one of two of the very first community psychiatric nurses in East Devon, based out of Honiton and Ottery St Mary.
Her role then was very similar to that of the Admiral Nurse now stationed in Honiton, as a result of the ongoing fundraising campaign which captured the hearts of the town.
As Heather says, “what she does now, I did in my twenties – hence my passion for it.”
It was also the time that Heather met her husband, a local GP who has now retired, for whom she was involved with co-ordinating his out-of-hours appointments. This meant developing a close relationship with everyone involved with health care provision in the local area.
“Every Christmas day, when the children were very little, we would get up, get the turkey prepped, have a few presents and head straight up to the hospital to visit all the patients. If there was a Christmas baby in the maternity ward the children used to love that,” Heather muses.
“The hospital has always been central to our lives. That’s how my connection with Honiton on the health side of things was established and has continued over the years in various different forms.”
Heather’s long and industrious career has seen her become the senior nurse manager for adult mental health across East Devon, receive a diploma in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at Oxford University, lecture medical students in CBT at Exeter University and set up her own private practice – among (many) other things.
“Underlining everything I’ve been involved with throughout my career, I’ve always been especially concerned with people living in our community that aren’t getting the best deal out of life; though either illness, disability or life circumstances,” she explains.
Heather credits her ten-year involvement with the school governing body for Mill Water School, which culminated in her becoming Chair, for providing her with the skillset required to uphold the committee roles she subsequently adopted.
The school, which was based in Honiton until it moved to Bicton College in 2015, provides for the educational needs of children and young adults who have additional requirements.
“As a volunteer, you’re running the school basically! School governors are the ones who get given the budget from Devon County Council and have to make, often difficult, decisions about what to prioritise with the school’s expenditures.
“It gave me with a real understanding of how to value volunteers, listen to their opinions and use their skills effectively. I learnt all of that through being a governor at Mill Water.”
Heather took early retirement after her husband retired ahead of her, being older, and she had three family members in her care.
At around this time, in 2007 the Bungalow was threatened with closure, which kindled something inside her want to campaign against it, which she did along with Alf Boom – then a councillor for Hontion Town Council.
When, in 2017/18, the medical ward at Honiton Hospital was threatened with closure, Heather was by then a Chairman of Honiton Hospital League of Friends and in that capacity joined a campaign against the closure.
"We lost both campaigns, but the earlier one led to me setting up Honiton Memory Cafe and the more recent one led to the setting up of Honiton Health Matters, of which I am a committee member.
"What it left me thinking was, 'I can’t replace a health service – I’m one individual’ but where are there gaps and what wasn’t being done well whilst I was working as a medical professional?
“And I thought, well there isn’t the support there for people when they are newly diagnosed with dementia or are beginning to get their first symptoms.
“It takes a crisis of some sort before NHS involvement becomes available and that seems awful to me.
“So, I started looking into it and saw what they were doing in Holland with Memory Cafés and thought if I could get the volunteers then maybe we could provide some support for people in the early stages of dementia here.”
Fast-forward a decade and work through the Honiton Dementia Action Alliance means that Honiton is now regarded as a ‘dementia friendly’ town, with lots of local businesses having undergone basic training to better understand the disease and how to be more accessible for those experiencing it.
Then there is the Admiral Nurse, Faye Valentine, who specialises in dementia care in particular for the families of those suffering – whose post was made possible after a hugely successful (ongoing) fundraising campaign.
Heather outlines her vision for the future: “As a community, we need to own our own health and wellbeing more and not expect to be done to, but to look at where we can develop and grow ourselves.
“There is a huge amount of wonderful work happening in Honiton; from the Scouts and Guides and Brownies – right through to all the sports stuff and various amazing support groups.
“We need to find ways of working more cohesively together and that’s really the aim of Honiton Health Matters.”
Heather has a final point she wishes to finish on and that is a promotion of nurses and the nursing profession.
“So much of what I do is as a result of my nurse training and I feel very privileged to have been able to have that.”