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, 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, has changed its structure and aims: it is 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 two years ago), 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 (and still counting).  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, you concentrate on point of sale, rather than providing an ongoing standard of service, because your “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 four months of extensive correspondence, meetings, and stress that escalated the case to Divisional Manager level (three stages up; a saga in itself), it appeared to be resolved to relative satisfaction, but after another change of senior management, some of the main issues persist*.  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. 

Eight months on, there is now a resident/staff ratio of 1:4/5 in daytime – although there are no plans to restore the original ratio of 1:3 or the proportion of nursing cover within this, which remains half that of pre-2015.   

(Staffing ratios overall are 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 has been restored, as have whiteboards in both lounges and some of the dementia-friendly design features.  Residents now have names and “memory boxes” (showcasing key memorabilia) on their doors. 

The atmosphere on the new wing has become more homely; decorations on the old wing have now been completed, but that lounge remains 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 now has a computer and a unit email address (which still does not allow care staff and families to communicate directly, rather than via the deputy manager or receptionist who monitor this address – it seems the company has reneged on a short-lived commitment to provide such direct access). 

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

This aims to ensure that no resident is ever sent to hospital unaccompanied in emergency (as my mum was last December), 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. It remains to be seen if this protocol continues to be implemented, in the face of further cuts and staff shortages... 

(I canvassed the 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.  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 assured me that they offer structured training, promotion, and bonuses to provide opportunities for attractive career progression.  While these are to be applauded, 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); 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.

Part 1: a Good Home

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