Ed Balls outside St Cecilia’s care home in Scarborough. Image Credit: BBC/Expectation

It’s not every day you see a former Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer washing someone’s feet.  In this case it’s Ed Balls, on his knees soaping the toes of 94-year-old Phyllis and asking her if she likes the water warm or hot, and what sort of dancing she used to do.

Turns out Ed’s pretty good at this, revealing an unexpected tenderness as he holds out the spoon to 90-year-old Frank whose dementia means he can sometimes become physical with carers.

The erstwhile politician turned TV personality and Strictly star (who could forget his Gangnam-style Salsa) lived and worked in care homes in Scarborough for two weeks for a BBC 2 documentary.  The camera, and we viewers, remain outside Frank’s room as he his changed. We hear him shouting, hear one carer telling him to let go of another and not to hurt her.  Ed, inside the room, sees it all.

“That was really hard for them (the carers), very physical.  In his stress Frank was gripping Alison so hard he inflicted a lot of pain”, says Ed.

“Outside of the boxing ring, how many jobs require you to absorb pain in that way? In a different setting, it would have been totally appropriate for them to pull away and go outside the door, but they’ve got a job to get done”.

Later, Ed tells his sister Jo how to feed someone else.  You present the spoon as close to someone’s mouth as possible, so that he or she can eat, he explains.  But the act of eating is always the individual’s decision.  Suddenly, it dawns on Ed why carers at his own mum’s care home say it’s taken her so long to eat one meal.

Ed is, in effect, all our eyes and ears.  Like him, I never really knew what went on in my mum’s two nursing homes.  Ed hadn’t realised his mum was hoisted in and out of her care home bed.  Now he knows how to do it – and he knows how it feels to have it done to you.

Lying there, on a low bed, he feels vulnerable and helpless, revealing to him the importance of communication between carer and cared for.  A lesson for us all, right there.

Ed Balls with Phyllis. Image Credit: BBC/Expectation

In the first episode of this two-parter Ed lives and works in St Cecilia’s, a family run, medium-sized care home.  I know its owner Mike Padgham through my writing and am pretty sure that his homes will provide better care than many others.

Post Covid only 33 of St Cecilia’s 44 beds are occupied.  Mike’s son tells Ed they need to be at 95pc capacity (that’s just two empty beds), in order for the home to operate long term.  The ex-Shadow Chancellor quickly calculates this means their monthly accounts are short by £33,000 – they have between six to 12 months before their business becomes untenable.

“Imagine the upheaval for residents like Phyllis and Frank or the loss of jobs for the staff.  If a business like this is going to go under in the next year, this isn’t just a crisis in social care, it’s a complete disaster,” says Ed.   Quite.  But what do we do?

Ed puts the question to one of his temporary colleagues, asking her to imagine he’s the Prime Minister and has just announced he’s reforming social care (who can Ed be thinking of?), what would he have to do?

Alison gives a heartfelt response.  “You need to look after us and stop putting us at the bottom of the list because you’ll need that care one day and I’m not wiping your bum”.

What carers lack is not only recognition and adequate pay (and in many cases, proper training) but a career structure.  In 2019, pre-Covid, more than 100,000 workers left the care sector.

At St Cecilia’s other specialist dementia home Ed meets 19-year-old Cameron, just six months into the job. Cameron is mature beyond his years and a naturally skilled carer for whom the best part of his work is connecting with people.  But Cameron’s ambition isn’t to be a carer. He became one, figuring that if he couldn’t handle that role he wasn’t cut out for his dream job – to become a paramedic.

Therein lies the rub.  Becoming a carer is often viewed as a dead end.  How often have you heard the phrase, “She’s just a carer”?  Imagine if she – who’d just been up all night with your dad, changing his soaking sheets and trying to calm him while, due to his incurable dementia, he shouted abuse at you – was you.

At the end of the episode Ed concludes that a fragile, fragmented industry that was close to the edge before Covid struck is now on its knees.  “The casualty if St Cecilia’s goes under will be the residents.  It doesn’t bare thinking about”.

It doesn’t.  In this first episode Ed, who admits he feels guilty that the Government of which he was a member didn’t transform social care when it was in office in the early 2000s, hasn’t come up with any answers.  And let’s not forget he’s a former politician forging a TV career for himself who took on the role, not for life, but for two weeks with a camera at his shoulder.

However, I’ve no doubt that this documentary, with Ed Balls as its celebrity draw, is another powerful reminder (which we shouldn’t need) that we must stop burying our heads in the sand, think about the unthinkable – and then, more importantly, act.  If we don’t – if our senior politicians flunk it, again – it will be Frank, Phyllis and thousands of other vulnerable souls living in homes like St Cecilia’s who suffer the terrible consequences.

In the second episode Ed meets those who, paid and unpaid, are caring for people at home.  Episode 1 is available now on BBC iPlayer