Brendan Courtney: 'There was a big box of Kleenex, we all watched together bawling'

Designer talks about documentary 'We Need to Talk About Dad' which highlighted 'anger' over Fair Deal scheme

On Monday night television presenter Brendan Courtney and his family revealed the difficulties they had, accessing care for his father, Frank, after a stroke, in an emotionally charged documentary called We Need to Talk About Dad.

It followed the family as they care for Frank and navigate the Fair Deal scheme, which in return for a financial contribution facilitates the care of elderly people. It highlighted, among other things, the confusing complexity of the process and the lack of options for older people who would prefer to be cared for at home. It got a huge response from viewers.

"Here's a little scoop for you - we got a press release late last night from the Department," he tells me over the phone. "I got a text from somebody in Leinster House last night saying 'check your email' and then I got this." He reads the opening lines of a press release. "Minister of State for Mental Health and Older People, Helen McEntee TD, has today announced that a consultation process is to be launched, with a view to establishing a new statutory homecare scheme. The process will begin in the coming months."

That’s obviously related to the documentary, he says. “I sent an email back ‘please state in English, ‘What does this mean?’” He laughs. “It’s jargon, but it does feel like a dip of a toe in the right direction.”


Why did he decide to discuss his family’s experience in such a public way? “It wasn’t my idea, you’ll be relieved to hear,” he says. “I was telling a friend, who is an executive producer, about the difficulties over lunch one day and my friend said ‘You know, that this would be a powerful documentary.’ I said, ‘I’d be scarlet.’ We were really in the peak of frustration and bafflement from the conflicting information we were getting ... I mentioned it to my mum and dad. My mother said ‘I think this would be a great idea’ and my dad said ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”

Was he worried about bringing his parents into the public eye? “They have a little bit of experience with it… they’ve featured in TV shows and papers with me… I was worried about it looking like that it was inappropriate, I suppose... But the message of it was so clear and that my dad was so into it, that it felt right. And then something unexpected happened, on the first day filming we actually had such a fun day as a family that I actually texted the director to say - ‘if this goes nowhere I’d like to say thanks for giving my family a great day.’ My dad loved it. We had fun and it was really distracting from the reality of the situation we were in, so I said ‘I know this is the right thing to do now.’”

He praises director Aoife Kelleher. "We had an all girl crew which was amazing. I think it that helped, because they were more sensitive in their approach and it was gentler."

Does it feel strange to be a voice for so many other people in the situation? “Nearly every message I’ve had, and I’ve had thousands now, is from people telling their story of their trouble and their plight. It was trending on Twitter for the whole of last night... I’ve heard from a lot of carers of disabled children or older parents. Some of it is just cathartic - people telling their stories. Some of those stories are resolved now - with parents being sorted or who’ve passed on. Others are really frustrated. There’s a lot of confusion around Fair Deal and how it works and when you add people’s only asset, their home or their savings, to that they then get defensive because they don’t know what’s going on. What I’m seeing is frustration anger, panic, because it’s a system that’s not clear.”

He’s trying to respond to each message, he says. Is that emotionally difficult? He laughs. “No. Sure we’ve been through it… It’s very privileged position to be in and I’m very aware of that to have a profile and to be able to highlight something. Sometimes being in the public eye isn’t the nicest thing in the world but sometimes if it can help a little bit, there can be very positive outcomes.”

So what next? “People are asking me to start a petition. I’ll look at that and see what that means. A lot of people are asking me for advice - but I can only give them advice based on my experience. I’m not a professional.”

What would he like to see change? “I think straight away I would love people when they use Fair Deal to be allowed to consider home care agencies. It’s about a similar price, by the way, around two grand a week on average… And I’d like someone go in and clear up the information on Fair Deal - ‘Here are the bullet points, here’s where you apply and here’s someone who can go out to older people and walk them through it’… Did you see in the documentary, the woman trying to explain it? And she’s the head of it… I think she was worried she came off poorly, but she came off helpful and kind and confused too because she didn’t write the system, she’s just trying to deliver it”

He thinks that it's all part of a wider problem. "I feel socially speaking we live in an ageist society and we need to look at that. My generation is the first in Ireland with real choice. Our parents couldn't even chose when they had kids. They had no education. They have no choice about how they age. We have to change the thought processes in society." He'd like there to be an Ombudsman for older people, he says, "and the bigger picture is if you're sitting beside your 70 or 80 year old parent, start the chat now - 'If something happens to you, what would you like to happen?' It's a difficult conversation to have, but it's very important."

Has there been any response from politicians as yet? Apart from the aforementioned press release, he says, there hasn't been. "They're gas aren't they, politicians? Have you ever been in Leinster House, the atmosphere is so formal and they just love that formal atmosphere." He sighs and decides to be positive. He has a lot of time for Social Democrat politician and former junior health minister Róisín Shortall, who helped to inform him about the system and whose cross party committee on healthcare is reporting in April and he is optimistic about Minister for Health Simon Harris.

“I’m a glass half-full kind of person,” he says. He talks about the recent emergency room crisis and how it links into “delayed discharge” of elder people in hospitals. “I think it’s all tied together… I think the current government would really do well in the polls if they could effect change in the health system because people are really wringing their hands now.”

Where did he watch the documentary? “We watched in mum’s. There was big box of Kleenex and we all watched together, bawling.”