Care Home heroes are too easily forgotten
IT SEEMS as if not a day goes by without headlines slamming the care home sector. Few operators in recent years have escaped the selective scrutiny of industry followers, often prompted by ‘whistleblowers’ or those professing to be acting in the best interests of residents.
Our sector is far from perfect in a great many aspects. It would be dishonest for leaders of care groups not to admit that the pace of change and improvement required to meet the needs of the UK’s rapidly growing base of vulnerable individuals needing care and support is extremely challenging. Demand for care home places is predicted to almost double within the next 20 years, fuelling fears of a crisis that will leave thousands in need without vital support.
The numbers speak for themselves. Demand for elderly care has already doubled since the mid 1990s. Approximately 420,000 people live in care homes. This is 4% of the population aged 65 years and over and 16% of those aged 85 years or over. We are generally living longer, although not always in good health. Approximately 70% of elderly people living in care homes suffer with dementia, a specific area of need that is growing very fast globally, again almost doubling every 20 years, according to Alzheimer’s International.
There are over 20,000 care homes in the UK. Since the majority of these are run by private businesses and charities, it is too easy to accuse the sector of putting profit or earnings before its duty of care. The lack of public funding and the demographic growth profile of care naturally make it appealing to patient investors with a long term view. Look elsewhere for short term gains that don’t require much capital.
Equally, there is little glory at grass roots level. While there remains high turnover among UK’s 650,000+ care home workers, the service and care provided by many is regularly way beyond either the call of duty or paid hours. For every alleged incident of poor care, there are thousands of examples of outstanding professionalism, compassion and care.
All care home staff work long hours, often allowing necessary contact with residents to cut into their own time. It is sometimes hard to explain to a dementia sufferer that you need to be elsewhere, so sensitivity and generosity with personal time prevail. I have seen countless examples of nurses, domestics, maintenance operatives, kitchen staff and other colleagues go above and beyond the call of duty for those in our care.
I would love to pretend that our first class training and rigorous recruitment are behind every unsung act of kindness in our homes. The truth is that the vast majority of care workers in the industry are dedicated, hardworking and sympathetic in often difficult circumstances.
Like many hospital professionals, a huge number of workers in the care sector are driven by a sense of vocation and interest in making a difference. They hope to find their work rewarding and satisfying, yet their efforts are eclipsed by negativity from external audiences towards the sector, based on – admittedly too many – allegations of isolated incidences of abuse, neglect or simply a failure to care.
Choosing a care home, typically the task of a prospective resident’s family, is extremely difficult. It is a decision often made with urgency as a result of a sudden event or deterioration in health. Throw into the mix the financial considerations, as well as a complex system for newcomers, and it is often an anxious and worrying time for families. Once the choice is made, it takes time for residents to settle in a care home. Many residents have previously enjoyed many years of living independently with little or no support from others. Moving into a care home presents residents with new faces, environments, meals, activities and routines. In addition to 24 hour care and support, one of the greatest benefits of care homes is the social interaction available.
Residents and families may be assured that the care home sector is tightly regulated. Nonetheless, enforcement is down to individual inspectors and although they do their best to be impartial and objective, they are ultimately human. Ratings are therefore based on an inspector’s inevitably subjective opinion, which would not have necessarily matched the view of another such visitor. In addition, some care home operators may have legacy issues to address from previous owners and are working hard to achieve big improvements across a number of homes.
It is easier to pull sensationalist headlines and selective reporting from inspectors’ documents, ostensibly in the interests of calling out rogue operators. But shortcomings identified by watchdogs, often gained during short visits, should be routinely compared with publicly available independent reviews and feedback from residents and their families, who have a much better sense of the sincerity and kindness care home staff demonstrate every day. Where the contrast in some cases might seem stark, the professionalism in care, the many extra miles of kindness and the commitment from workers in care homes continue long after the inspectors have left, possibly with a snapshot view that leaves staff, residents and relatives anxious and deflated.
The unsung heroes of the care home sector deserve overdue praise and society needs to recognise the important and often challenging work they perform. Many onlookers are far too quick to criticise the care sector, tainting the term “care home” with negative connotations. They have almost certainly not experienced first-hand the hard work our colleagues perform and the smiles they bring every day to the people we are privileged to support. It’s high time the sector stood up to celebrate our heroes.
Kevin Roberts is CEO of Akari Care, a nationwide group of 39 residential care homes