Wednesday 24 August 2016

Five-Star Hotel, Five-Star Care? Part 4: Conclusion

New Year 2016: with mum thankfully recovering from an emergency admission from her care home to hospital just before Christmas (and another acute episode at the beginning of January), I made a formal complaint to the General Manager about a number of issues that had led up to this crisis.  I was shocked to find myself in this situation, as prior to summer 2015 I had had nothing but praise for the home.

I did not blame the staff, who were clearly doing their best as before, but with ever-greater demands on their time since a new wing had opened in mum’s unit, doubling capacity.  As the complaints process progressed through the subsequent months and indeed years, it also became evident that most of the problems could not be solved unilaterally by the manager, but had their roots in corporate culture and finance.

The company, which still trades on the person-centred ethos of its founder, had changed its structure and aims: it was now run by a corporate board with City objectives. These structural and strategic changes occurred back in 2013, but were never communicated to the residents and families dependent on its extensive network of homes.  It took a couple of years for their effect to filter down.

In the last decade, a number of new operators have entered the market – many from a background of “hospitality”, rather than nursing or social-care. In short, hotels.  They have looked at the demographics and seen that there is a burgeoning demand for retirement apartments and care homes, but may not appreciate the difference between them.  We know about accommodation, they think; we can do that.  And if we make it glossy and build in richer parts of the country, we can charge premium rates.

And yes, active and affluent retirees in their sixties and seventies may well enjoy a cinema, swimming pool, café bar, and the kind of cool minimalist décor they have grown used to at home or in upmarket hotels and restaurants.  These are lovely facilities, if money is no object and you are fit and well.  Even so, I would argue that the qualities you seek for a short break in a luxury hotel or time-share complex are not the same as your own home comforts. 

And if you are over eighty, frail, confused, living with dementia or other degenerative disease, and looking for a home with intensive practical support, they are not the most important factors.  What you need is people.  This cannot be said enough.  People can give care.  Fancy curtains can’t hold your hand when you’re dying.

The much-vaunted “person-centred care”, touted on every website and brochure, needs two essential ingredients: staff and time.  Enough well-trained, well-paid, kind, empathetic staff; and enough time for those staff to spend with their residents outside practical care tasks, to engage with them as people, not room numbers.

So it frustrates and depresses me to see care home companies all hurtling sheep-like down the road of spa hotel one-upmanship, at the expense of investment in the basics.  And it breaks my heart that mum’s provider, that once led the field in genuine person-centred care, now feels the need to compete on these terms – offering a staff/resident ratio just a little bit better than its competitors (but significantly worse than its own prior to 2015), and achieving that “little bit better” by making stealthy cuts to service elsewhere (catering, housekeeping, maintenance) and by keeping staff on minimum wage.

It’s well-known that the National Living Wage has placed greater financial strain on both care providers and funding bodies.  Good care isn’t cheap, it never will be, and should not depend on the exploitation of workers.  But if there is a crisis in funding and priorities have to be chosen, that’s a conversation providers should be having with residents and families, not a unilateral decision to be deployed by sleight of hand to maintain profit.

In my view, there’s a moral imperative for transparency; but if commercial arguments are all that count, I would point out that at the time of mum’s crisis in December 2015, we had personally paid over £200,000 to that company.  That represents the sale of our family home, our collective lifetime assets.  Surely that buys us some rights of consultation? 

(The annual residents and families survey had quietly been dropped around the time of the corporate changes, and communications from the company were minimal; the one meeting with the new manager was held on a weekday afternoon when most relatives could not attend.)

While there was apparently scant budget for daily running costs, money was available in relative abundance for cosmetic improvements and gimmicks. Focusing on kerb appeal to attract new business in this way, to the detriment of basic daily care and humanity, is a pernicious economy.  I suspect a cynical calculation that, as the average stay in care is two-and-a-half years, some providers concentrate on point of sale, rather than providing an ongoing standard of service, because their “customers” have a natural shelf life and won’t be around to complain. Please prove me wrong.

So what happened to my complaint?  (For details, see previous posts, Problems, and Crisis.) After many months of extensive correspondence, meetings, and stress that escalated the case to Divisional Manager level (three stages up; a saga in itself), at one point it appeared to be resolved to relative satisfaction, but after another change of senior management, the main issues persisted*.  Early on, I had accepted that the hospital admission was necessary in the circumstances, and that night staff, faced with a life-threatening emergency, acted in good faith, to the best of their ability. I had no complaint against them.

My main concern was to address the issue of staffing levels on mum’s unit (which had fallen 40% between July and December 2015, from 1:3 to 1:5/6), a general fall in service provision throughout the home, and the circumstances that led to mum’s sudden deterioration in the latter half of 2015. 

With improved monitoring in 2016, she rallied from this crisis, and by summer had improved enough to be able to sit out in the garden on some days. By that summer of 2016, there was a staff/resident ratio of 1:4/5 in daytime – although at times this slipped back down to 1:6 - but there were no plans to restore the original ratio of 1:3 or the proportion of nursing cover within that, which remained half that of pre-2015.   

(Staffing ratios overall need to be higher in dementia nursing units than in purely residential care, because residents’ physical dependency becomes intense, with help needed for eating, drinking, continence, and two care-workers required to lift a person and sometimes to manage distressed behaviour.)

The squash dispenser was restored (but with cheap and very diluted squash, not fresh juice); whiteboards in both lounges and some of the dementia-friendly design features were reinstated, but application of these was patchy. The atmosphere on the new wing became more homely; but although decorations on the old wing were finally completed, that lounge remained less used and less welcoming in character.

The residents and families survey resumed in October 2016, with a new staff survey supposedly to follow.  One of the nursing stations was allocated a computer and a unit email address, but the latter still did not allow care staff and families to communicate directly, only via the deputy manager or receptionist as before – the company reneged on a short-lived commitment to provide direct access. 

I lobbied hard on all these issues, but of course it’s difficult to say if the few gains were a direct result of my complaint.  One thing I did count as a significant achievement was a new protocol for emergency transfers of residents to hospital, which the home introduced in April 2016.  

This aimed to ensure that no resident is ever sent to hospital unaccompanied in emergency (as mum was in December 2015), through a rota of off-duty staff to be summoned as cover, and sets out a checklist of personal effects, contacts, and documents to support any such transfer. I'd be surprised if this protocol has survived in the face of further cuts and staff shortages... 

(I canvassed other major care providers for their policy on emergency admissions to hospital; shockingly none was willing to guarantee that residents would always be escorted - because that requires a degree of slack in their staffing levels above bare minimum cover, the standard for their budgets.  Ask yourself, would it be acceptable for a terminally ill child to be sent alone to ED?  No?  Then why do providers - charging up to £2,000 per week - believe it to be so for a frail elderly person with severe cognitive impairment or for an adult with learning disability?  You won't find that in any glossy sales brochure.)

One key question remains unanswered: were the actions of mum’s care provider (in downgrading its service) motivated by need or greed?  Did they make cuts simply to survive, or rather to maximise profit?  The latter being negotiable, the former, not.

The spectre looming over all of this is that of care companies, such as Southern Cross, suddenly going bust.  The regulator, the Care Quality Commission, now has a scheme called Market Oversight that monitors the financial viability of key providers and aims to warn local authorities if services they purchase are vulnerable to collapse.  As far as I know, there is no equivalent protection for self-funders, who remain entirely reliant on providers themselves (and their own independent research) for information.

The financial background of providers is notoriously labyrinthine and hard to interpret for the layman. I would like to see residents and families entitled to receive the same annual reports as shareholders – we are indeed the principal stakeholders in that business.

Throughout the UK, there is a known shortage of nurses in general, let alone specialist dementia nurses (and Brexit threatens to exacerbate this situation).  The appointment and retention of suitably qualified staff is undoubtedly a challenge for providers in a competitive market, and the Divisional Manager of mum’s company argued that they offer structured training, promotion, and bonuses to provide opportunities for career progression; but while these may look attractive on paper, from my observations I would suggest that staff retention is less about long-term corporate incentives  (that take staff away from hands-on care) than decent daily working conditions: 

Listen to the staff, value their opinions and expertise, and act on it; give them proper meal breaks and meals; pay them a good basic rate for very hard work (13-hour shifts in some cases); subsidise child-care or at least try to accommodate staff with fixed rosters; treat them with as much kindness and respect as is due to residents and families.

Above all, value the bond between residents and care-workers who know them well; see it as an asset, not a threat.  (Don’t, for instance, deliberately roster staff away from their accustomed units to render them interchangeable for corporate efficiencies; “personal” care should be just that.)

Finally, whatever the financial challenges, never forget that residents are not inanimate “units of business”, but people - whose lives depend on you.   If a genuine desire to provide care is not your prime motivation, look elsewhere to make your profits.  A home is not a hotel.  This is what it's about: 

*Updated @November 2016, August 2017, May 2018, April 2019, April 2020 (see postscript below).

NB: During 2017 and 2018, this situation escalated further to crisis for the home as a whole (not just my complaint), with it being rated "Requires Improvement" in all categories by the CQC in 2018, where it had formerly been "Good" or above.  In May 2018, regretfully I felt I had to move mum out of this once excellent home; it was a huge decision, but thankfully she settled well into her new home in the same area, due in no small part to some familiar staff who had preceded her there. Continuity of care is paramount for those with dementia and I was grateful that she had that once more. However, I am also aware of our good fortune as self-funders in being able to make this move; others were not so lucky, and many of the issues described here persisted in the original home for some time after she left. 

Update: as per summer 2019, I was pleased to find that the original home had received a good rating once more, but in her state of advanced age and frailty I didn't feel mum had time in 2018 to wait for this improvement. Crucially, I now know no provider is immune from them; they are part of the overall landscape of the sector, due to funding models that remain contentious.

Update: In January 2020, my mum died.  I'm thankful it was peaceful, before the COVID19 outbreak, and I was able to spend the whole time with her in the weeks preceding her eventual demise, holding her hand until the last; eternally grateful for the wonderful care she received in her final home and to kind and dedicated staff in both homes who supported us throughout her more than eight years in care.  

Sadly, I hear that the original home, having received a good CQC report in 2019, "promoted" the new manager to an executive post overseeing a group of regional homes (a familiar pattern), leaving that home once more under temporary leadership - and once more spending lavish sums on cosmetic refurbishments, when extensive redecorations had been completed barely a year earlier, at a time when staffing across the whole sector continues to be the top operational issue.  Desperately disappointing, the more so when care homes are suffering so much from government funding neglect in the face of COVID19.

Meanwhile, a report into privatised adult social care by Professor Bob Hudson indicates that the detrimental changes I have witnessed in mum's home are common symptoms of the drive among providers to maximise profit by cutting down on their major expense and main budget variable: staff.  (See in particular points 12 & 13 on page 9 of the report...)

[NB: This post was written in 2016, pre-COVID-19. Coronavirus has placed further strains on the care sector, and restrictions on visiting care homes may now apply; please check with the provider.] 


  1. This is so informative and shocking Ming Ho. I have now read the four blog posts from crisis to conclusion. Thank you for finding out about all this stuff. It makes me realise how incredibly lucky we are to be with a small care home, whose management really does give the impression of caring genuinely about the quality of care. I will let you know when I publish my post about moving rooms, although I don't make it clear in the post the care home went out of their way to accommodate our concerns.

  2. Thanks, Julia. The tragic thing in mum's case is that her home had all those exemplary values of a small, personal home when I first moved her there in 2011 (I would not have chosen it otherwise); they have been systematically destroyed by a more recent corporate culture - and sad to say, since I wrote these posts, the situation has become even worse and remains ongoing, now at crisis level.

    I am frankly disgusted at the lack of accountability from the provider (one of the biggest in the UK, boasting the highest percentage of self-funders). I have now spent the best part of two years following due process, trying to raise concerns with management in a civil, reasoned way and to be understanding of the financial pressures on the company and the industry as a whole; but there's a baseline of respect and compassion for residents, staff, and families that seems to be utterly lacking in the pursuit of corporate objectives. I am heartbroken at what has happened; my peace of mind and trust has gone.

  3. Many thanks for sharing your experiences of the care your Mum is receiving. I have now read your entire blog and found it incredibly informative and moving. Sadly your play "The Things We Never Said" is no longer available on iPlayer, is there any other way I can hear it. I put on a couple of dementia related plays at this years Brighton Fringe to coincide with Dementia Awareness week, so would be really interested. By the way have you seen the play "The Purple List a gay Dementia Venture" - I saw it the other week in Brighton and it was superb.

    Kind regards


    Matthew Moors
    Dementia Action Alliance Coordinator Brighton and Hove

  4. Hi, Matthew

    Thanks for reading; glad you've found the blog informative. The situation with mum's home (described in this 4-part post) is very dispiriting, given that the home was so good in former years - and I hope will be again. The lesson here (one of them) is that we can't take anything for granted: change can happen in both directions...

    There is good care, but it is as difficult to sustain, as to achieve in the first place, perhaps more so. Leadership is so important, but I fear that corporate culture is fundamentally in conflict with the principles of true person-centred care.

    I haven't yet seen 'The Purple List', but will look out for it, if it comes my way. I hope my play, 'The Things We Never Said', will be repeated on BBC R4 at some point (and am also aiming for stage production), but in the meantime, I'll send you a link.

    Thanks again for getting in touch.

    All the best,


  5. I have just devoured your blog from start to finish. I ended up here following links from the 'Fortunately' podcast and became transfixed.
    I loved it for putting into words that relationship with someone you knew very well who is no longer around even when they are...if you know what I mean. My Mum suffered too.
    It was so sad what happened to the lovely home you found for your Mum. It's terrible when a well functioning facility is picked apart for profit or so it would seem from your description. As a paramedic I have seen the good and the bad (and the even worse) so I know whats out there, it's similar here in Australia.
    I echo your sentiments about valuing staff and providing time for 'caring'. Its a pretty simple complex but nowadays is just disappearing under a pile of bureaucracy, paperwork and computers.
    My wife, a nurse of 40 years, specialising in dementia care would agree wholeheartedly - we need to slow down and CARE.
    Best wishes to you and Mum - good luck.
    Cheers John Stockwell- Brisbane

    1. Thanks so much for reading & commenting, John. So sorry I have only just found your comment on the moderation page; apologies for long delay in replying. All the best to you.