This week seems to be all about carers for me. I opened my inbox to find an email from one of my oldest friends. Her mum, diagnosed with dementia the year before, died last autumn aged 85 and now her elderly dad, a partially-sighted diabetic, has developed dementia and is struggling to live alone after over 60 years of married life. Sad and difficult times for a family I’ve known since I was a nipper.
My friend wondered what questions she should ask three agencies she’d contacted seeking live-in care for her 92-year-old dad. All three have been awarded Outstanding by the Care Quality Commission, which sounds like a good start, and Linda had already enquired about what was expected in terms of the carers’ accommodation, and about rotas, money and food.
But we all know that nothing beats meeting carers face to face, sounding them out, getting to know them. People are nothing else if not individual. As is Linda’s dad. A lovely man who never quite lost his Nottinghamshire accent despite having lived in Surrey for over seven decades.
What you want, of course, as my mother-in-law identified when her husband needed extra help in his final days, is a blend of professionalism and compassion. It’s the holy grail of social and healthcare.
Sometimes, fortune smiles on us relatives – as it did with me and dad. Caught off guard one Friday night (it’s always Friday isn’t it?) by a GP’s call informing me that dad had suffered a stroke and needed 24 hour care immediately I phoned around care agencies with a growing sense of panic. No one – good, bad or indifferent – was available for at least two weeks.
In desperation I phoned my mum’s nursing home, whose manager saved the day. “I’ll put in a call,” she said. The next morning, Saturday no less, Martha arrived at my father’s flat at 8am. She stayed three years, until dad died. She was a God send. A natural carer with a loving touch and a warm heart.
Originally from Zimbabwe, her English wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t matter. Within a few weeks dad’s rheumy eyes followed Martha’s every move, and in his final months this church-going, middle-aged mother came to mean more to him than any of us family because, with quiet, seemingly infinite patience, she performed the most intimate tasks for him.
Before Martha, before dad needed formalised, live-in care, there was Marius. A young Polish lad who worked for a charity (so was CRB checked) and did the odd stint at dad’s favourite local restaurant.
When I realised that dad needed a hand with shaving, washing and cooking, word came to me that Marius might like to help out. I went to meet him before his lunchtime shift at the Rialto in Dorking. Two hours and three cappuccinos later there was no doubt in my mind that Marius was the one.
Dad, who’d come across several Poles while serving with the Royal Signals in the second world war, loved them. He didn’t speak Polish but he did speak French, and so did Marius. The two of them enjoyed chatting en français for hours on end – Marius’s accent was better than dad’s but that didn’t matter, the important thing was that they got on. Like a house on fire.
In Marius and Martha, I had stumbled across carers who perfectly suited, not just dad’s needs at the relevant times but, just as importantly, his personality – and him. This feeds into my argument that care homes for those of similar backgrounds – such as the Royal Hospital Chelsea for army veterans, London’s Denville Hall for retired actors and the much-lamented Pickering House in my home town of Dorking, Surrey for ex-journalists (which closed last year) – provide immediate connections and topics of conversation for those who live there.
Recently I came across Elder, a live-in care specialist that matches your loved ones with experienced, vetted carers. I haven’t tested Elder’s claims but am very much in favour of their advertised offering and will investigate and report back in a later blog.
I was reminded of Marius when I read of the Government’s drive to recruit thousands more care workers, specifically young people. The Every Day is Different campaign is being promoted on social media platforms and online sites through this month and next to encourage under-40s to take jobs such as care workers, therapists and activity co-ordinators.
It comes as a report by the Health Foundation charity says that a lack of community staff may damage the NHS. The recruitment drive focuses on the rewarding and diverse work to be found in care – something that many of you reading this won’t need to be told.
But while many of the young care workers involved in the campaign have inspirational stories to tell, they talk too of the poor pay and lack of career structure. Twenty-two-year-old Greg Mather is a final year degree student who has been working part-time as a domicile care worker for a year.
He told the BBC, “It has been hugely advantageous to me in the long term as it has provided me with amazing experience in working with vulnerable adults”. But adds that it is not enough to say that ‘you’ll feel so rewarded after each shift’ if you are paid so little.
“For such an emotionally and sometimes physically demanding job it is shocking that the majority of care workers are paid the minimum wage”.
I couldn’t agree more. In 2013 I wrote a Thunderer column for the Times arguing that as a society we outsource the care of our elderly relatives to formal carers, pay those carers peanuts (less than my then 15-year-old daughter received for babysitting), fail to provide carers with meaningful training or to recognise the complex emotional and physical demands they face and then moan like stink about them. In six years nothing much has changed. Now there’s the added worry of a post-Brexit world.
To return to my old friend and her dad, and hopefully end on a more positive note, if any readers have further suggestions for questions that Linda might ask potential agencies and their live-in carers could you leave a comment or DM me on Twitter. Likewise, I’m happy to pass on the names of the three agencies Linda has approached if you contact me privately – and keen to know your views on them.