There is a care home in Devon where the physical ruin inflicted by alcohol on a person’s mind can be treated.
For 30 years it has been run by ex serviceman Steve Todd who goes to extreme lengths to help those who others have abandoned.
For those three decades his remarkable work at the Vane Hill Care Home has gone largely unnoticed. Even some of those he’s helped might not be 100 per cent aware of it.
As Steve puts it, there is a moment during the life of a person with Korsakoff syndrome when ‘the shutters come down.’
Events that happened before this point in time stay relevant to that person but everything afterwards is a haze, a memory they can’t quite reach.
“I call it the shutter effect because it’s like the shutters coming down in somebody’s life,” he says. “Something traumatic happened, a death, loss of a job, a fall out with a family member – that’s the moment they start showing signs. I work backwards and go back to that gap.”
Typically a person with the illness will not be able to remember a conversation they had with you just a few minutes. Ask them who the Prime Minister is and they will probably say Margaret Thatcher, whoever was in Number 10 when the shutters came down.
Korsakoff syndrome is most commonly caused by alcohol misuse. It involves a lack of thiamine or vitamin B1 which helps brain cells produce energy from sugar. When levels fall too low, brain cells cannot generate enough energy to function properly and Korsakoff syndrome can result.
Vane Hill is specialises in caring for people with Alcohol-Related Brain Damage.
Steve says: “The main loss is around the short term memory. They can’t remember events from five minutes or one hour before and forget what just happened. They also have other physical problems like walking with a wide gait.
“If you ask somebody what day it is they would say the first thing that comes into their head. The first thing that comes into their head is what they remember when the shutters came down.
“They can also make things up. They might say ‘I’ve been to watch Plymouth Argyle against Exeter City’ but they haven’t and never went.” Those with Korsakoff syndrome may ‘confabulate,’ or make up, information they can’t remember. Scientists are yet to fully understand why.
Steve took over at Vane Hill in 1990 and began to specialise in ARBD three years later.
An ex servicemen he could relate to many of the men and women and their personal traumas. He suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome himself and left the ambulance service after a serious road accident. Above all he wanted to help.
Vane Hill takes in the people others had shunned or found too much trouble. Steve has spent many hours over many years travelling up and down the country retrieving people who had fallen by the wayside, consumed and overcome by their addiction.
“I was getting people in from all over the country. Homeless people from homeless units. We were taking referrals from the Sisters of Mercy. Southwark, Lambeth, Westminster, Stoke-on-Trent Liverpool. We now have more closer to home.
“They are people who were probably alcoholics but have completely cut it out. We rebuild their brain, get their diet sorted out and exercise them in the day-to-day running of the home. We want them to choose to be able to help themselves.
“Some like to clean, some feed chickens, or dogs. We want them to handle it themselves. We have one girl who works at The Grand Hotel. That was only hotel that answered one of my call. Now she has been there nine years, although currently she is furloughed.
“One chap we had from London was a labourer and he would wait outside for a white van to pick him up for work. We would tell him the truth that there was no white van coming but he would say ‘yes there is he’ll be here in a minute’. Eventually he came to realise there was no van coming to pick him up.
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“I’ve never had to lock the doors in 30 years. Only after a certain time of night. They don’t have to ring the bell. They come and go as they choose within reason. The only condition is that they don’t drink alcohol. They will be expected to undergo voluntary alcohol tests.”
The home consists of two units. One houses 18 older people and the other 14 younger residents. Men and women. The average age 55.
Steve says: “They’re usually people who nobody knows what to with, they’re in hospital or with social services. Or another care home can’t give them the help they need to rebuild their life. I have to assess people to see if I can meet their needs. If in my mind I can help a person and bring back a bit of what their life some form of normality I’ll definitely bring them in.
“The best time is when we journey back to Torquay together. I can find out so much about them I can find out stuff no social worker has been able to tap into. It’s usually trauma.
“We can always turn left or right in life. There were times in my life where I could have taken the wrong turn. Fortunately for me there was support around me at the time. I needed it. They probably never had support. These guys and girls family shunned them, people around didn’t want to know them and they got in a really bad state.
“That’s the difference between them and us – they never had anybody to support them when they were in an alcoholic state. I spent seven years trying to track down one guy and get him in here. I assessed him one year at a police station in Colchester and year later a bedsit in Cambourne and the next year at Brixham Prison. He’s been here ever since.
“Some are very long stay, the longest at the moment has been here 22 years. They stay sometimes because they’ve relapsed along the way and gone back to alcohol on a small scale. We work with them so it doesn’t happen again. These days we often have very short stays. I’m discharging a chap back to his flat in the early part of December after 12 months here.
His aim, he says, is to make a person feel like a human being again and to help them care again. Many gain qualifications, some develop skills. Staff and residents work together meal times.
“It’s probably best painted house in Devon,” says Steve. “They are a community and they look after and protect it. Part and parcel of rehabilitation to look after yourself. Coping so they don’t need alcohol in their lives again.
In Covid free times Steve takes some residents into schools where they can talk about the dangers of alcohol. Teams of doctors and nurses from abroad are also known to have visited to see how his staff work.
There are many success stories and some failures. That is inevitable considering the circumstances.
“When they leave us there is no ring of steel around them. Ten years ago one guy went back to Ireland. He phones me up regularly and tells me what he’s been up to.
“We have quite a few veterans. Drinking is a big thing in the forces where you are trained to drink from an early age. That’s what they do.”
No two residents are the same and there are always surprises.
During the coronavirus pandemic the residents have decided to stay indoors. Steve is proud of their collective act of willpower. Somehow the virus has pulled them together.
“There’s a chap who never normally speaks but when he was asked why do you think people are wearing masks he said ‘the virus, they don’t want me to catch it’. He would never normally speaks at all. He would probably think Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.
“Some say Korsakoff syndrome is irretrievable brain damage but I dispute that. I’ve seen people regain 75 per cent of their memory and its no longer any different than me as a 65-year-old.”