Life’s journey is made up of an ever-evolving story. No matter how many pages we are blessed with, no one can predict how their lives will unfold. We live out our days in chapters that may be short or long, sad or happy, but all filled with unlimited potential. At Catherine House Care Home, we believe that this potential lives in all of our residents, who we affectionately refer to as family members, and we spend every day encouraging each person in our care to reach out and take it.

One inspiring woman who has spent her whole life making the most of each day no matter what her circumstances, is family member Hilary Crabtree, a retired social care worker and actress who entered the social care sector as significant changes were happening to it. Hilary devoted her career to being a driving force for positive change which led to the people she supported living lives far more enriched than when she found them.

Join us as we take a glance into Hilary’s own life full of enrichment, and flick through her chapters.

We open to a loving and theatrical childhood by the seaside, then growing up and becoming an activist for people through her social care career, meeting the love of her life, to her experiences after receiving a life changing medical diagnosis at forty and finding the strength to move forwards in search for new purpose, something she had previously been so adamant to give others.

Entering onto Life’s Stage by the Sea

The rolling waves of the English Channel crashing against the grey pebbles of West Sussex’s shoreline performed as the backdrop of Hilary’s colourful childhood. She spent her early life riding her bicycle around with her three older sisters, visiting the local beaches, and enjoying musical evenings with her loving parents, who were active participants in drama and music productions within their community. It is no surprise that Hilary inherited an affinity for the theatrical spectacle from them, and as she frolicked her youth away playing in ocean waters and growing an appreciation for the arts, she was also dreaming of one day tackling even bigger stages.

As a teenager, Hilary moved with her family to Suffolk, where her father took up a primary headship. Teenage life in a country village required some independence and creativity, so Hilary and her sister who was closest to her in age, set up a folk singing group and practiced their artistic leanings whilst living on the top floor of the local vicarage. This not only allowed a creative outlet for the pair, but also helped them to foster a sense of community within their village. From a young age, all the way through her most formative years, Hilary had been taught the value of community and endeavour. She grew to understand the importance of being part of a collective, where everyone’s contributions were considered and celebrated.

Although she showed promise in her theatrical and singing talents, Hilary’s life calling seemed to lay elsewhere. She had inherent empathy for others, making her a natural advocate for vulnerable people, and a deep sense of justice that extended far beyond her family’s small Suffolk village. It was time for Hilary to use her talents to help those who needed it most, and so she set out on a new journey in search of a much larger, complicated stage. As the lights came up on Hilary’s adolescence, she began weaving a new story.

Starting out in Social Care

When it was time for her to enter the professional sphere, Hilary already had a real sense of the power of collective spirit and a passion for giving back to the community. Her teenage experiences had formed an ideal platform to springboard her career, and when it came to choosing one, she firstly opted for teacher training. Hilary moved to Weymouth and subsequently took up teaching posts locally in the Dorset area, but in the 1980’s, a move to the Isle of Wight began a new journey into working with people with learning disabilities, initially at a day centre, which sealed her decision to qualify as a social worker.

Taking that big step wasn’t easy. She had to make her way to Southampton University, which meant taking a ferry and crossing the rough winds of the English Channel and bumpy crossings home through late stormy nights. Each crossing became something more than travel from Island to mainland. It was the story of her own ambition and determination to achieve what she had set out to do, and of course, she passed.

Becoming a Social Care Activist

Qualifying as a social worker meant that Hilary was able to progress and take on management roles, but she had entered into the field of social care just as significant changes were happening to it, and she moved to Swindon to embrace the challenges of implementing “care in the community.” This was a movement to offer learning disabled people the opportunity to move out of long stay residential hospitals into smaller, more tailored support settings in local communities.

It was a challenging time that involved establishing small care homes of 3-6 residents. Hilary had to combat local opposition on occasions, determined to find compatible people who could live well together. She took great care in reassuring the people she supported, gently encouraging them to leave the security they had known, sometimes for most of their lives, and set out on a fresh path.

Hilary already had the foundation knowledge of how to nurture an strong community, and as she travelled widely across the south of the country, it was always with compassion and insight and she found tremendous satisfaction in placing residents successfully and seeing them blossom. Sometimes, for the first time, they were encouraged to greater independence in making their own decisions with shopping, being out and about in the community, choosing food and cooking, and having a real home rather than being institutionalised.

Hilary meets Heather

During her time a social worker, Hilary was introduced to Heather by chance through mutual friends, and the two instantly shared a connection. Uniting their lives, their love story began in the heart of the Cotswolds, in the picturesque village of Colerne in Wiltshire, then onto the equally charming town of Bradford on Avon. They holidayed abroad, then came home to a place they had built together nestled in the English countryside, and to their beloved West Highland Terriers.

They have stood by each other’s sides ever since, even when faced with adversity.

Hilary’s Diagnosis: Facing Multiple Sclerosis at 40

1994 marked a milestone year for Hilary, but whilst her 40th birthday celebrations should have been what defined that year as a momentous one, a surprise diagnosis is instead what marked it as unforgettable. Hilary was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

After a few months of panicking about the implications, life settled down again and Hilary and Heather initially felt fortunate to find that the MS only had minor impacts on their day to day. They were still able to travel and walk their Terriers, entertain friends and take a full part in everyday life. Hilary continued with drama and singing, her and Heather became WI members and were fully involved in the community. Eventually though, Hilary experienced the first serious limitation brought on by MS. When intensive travelling for work took its toll, Hilary retired from social work in 1999, leaving behind a legacy of commitment, hard work and dedication to improving the lives of those in need of social care.

Still, she continued to pursue an active life, writing, homemaking, introducing the dogs to agility training and volunteering in a preschool nursery. Life continued to be full of joy, and after many years of growing together and loving each other, Hilary and Heather moved to Frome in Somerset and in 2006, celebrated their Civil Partnership.

A Journey into Care

The transition to Hilary moving into a care home came gradually. Despite moving from their initial wonky, uneven floored home into a modern house with a lift that allowed for continued independence, increasing changes in Hilary’s mobility meant the need for more carers to be involved, until their days became ruled by visits and schedules.

The day had come. The pair made the decision for Hilary to move to a care home so that Hilary could receive professional support and they could get their life back. They needed a home that would enable them to live as independently as possible while providing readily available support as required. They found the answer at Catherine House Care Home, a place that sees the person, not the diagnosis. A place with a team who believes that every one of us deserves to live a life of purpose and fulfilment, no matter what stage of life we’re at, and somewhere close enough for Heather to visit Hilary on a daily basis.

A New Lease of Life at Catherine House

“In many ways, moving to Catherine House has offered both of us a new lease of life”, Heather tells me. “Caring is now part of the daily routine and always there in the background, but Hilary is able to go out in her wheelchair and being in the heart of Frome town, we are still able to go shopping, lunch with other ladies, attend markets and concerts and feel we are genuinely part of the community.”

Heather relayed to me other visits Hilary has enjoyed out from Catherine House, the most notable being ice skating, “Yes, actually ON the ice, in her wheelchair, something she would never have done on her own two feet!” At Catherine House, she gains enormous pleasure from watching a regular trail of birds and squirrels doing acrobatics on the feeders outside her window and has decorated her room with numerous pictures and paintings that evoke places she and Heather have both enjoyed together throughout their lives, forming a rich tapestry of treasured memories and inherent parts of Hilary’s identity that have marked her life story.

A New Chapter

Choosing to live in a care home is not giving up. Hilary is living proof of that. When you choose the right home, it can present a fresh start of a whole new chapter, a place to regain independence and live a continuation of life where meaningful interaction exists and is supported. Or in Hilary’s case, a place where you can spin on ice for the first time!

When asked to summarise Hilary’s life, Heather told us: “Throughout Hilary’s life and work, kindness, honesty and the promotion of independence have been key themes, all of which have been able to carry on in Catherine House. Recently, she held her 70th birthday party in the lounge here, hosting family and friends plus guest folk singers, the organisation all supported by Catherine House staff. It’s not the same as being at home, but it has meant life continues to be rich and full of opportunities.”

Throughout Hilary’s life, starting as a little girl singing with her parents and sisters by the sea, then with a new found community in Suffolk that she brought together with her own ambition, to finding compatible living environments and homes for vulnerable people that would allow them to thrive, Hilary has spent her years on earth with a strong vision to unite and cheer people of all walks of life, bringing them together through joy and compassion.

She forged a space for people with learning disabilities to define themselves within a wider society. She was able to create an environment that was both respectful and supportive to those she encountered, and she strived to make sure that individuals felt part of the community, not isolated from it. Her drive for human connection, love and happiness has never wavered. And now, Hilary continues to prove day after day that one can lead a life of purpose and enjoyment despite any personal challenge. Instead of succumbing to a life of limitation, she has created a one of opportunity and growth.

At Catherine House Care Home, we believe in fostering independence and offering enriching experiences and if you would like to hear more about life at Catherine House then please email support@catherinehousecarehome.com for further details.