I came into care work a naïve 18-year-old who thought she could support older and disabled people to live active, interesting lives. But thrown in at the deep end, I realised perhaps it wasn’t going to be that easy.
My first job was in a nursing home where all of the residents had a complex mix of physical disabilities and advanced dementia. I thought I’d got the job because I was caring, compassionate and willing to learn – but actually I think it’s because I was cheap labour.
Most of the staff were equally inexperienced as I and as we were young, our employer only had to pay us £2.85 per hour. The ensuing mayhem made me want to stay and protect these people whereas many others simply left.
‘Choice again forgotten’
We were managed by an older-style matron who ruled with a rod of iron. Residents had to be up, dressed and eating breakfast by 8am, regardless of whether they wanted to be or not. All had to be back in bed again by 8pm, choice again forgotten.
I was once disciplined and given a warning after giving a resident a cheese sandwich. The lady had refused Sunday lunch and asked for a cheese sandwich, so I made her one. Following that incident I was actually barred from the kitchen.
Institutional was the only way I can possibly describe it. I never thought it was right and I knew there must be a better way.
I knew if I worked for the local authority my pay would improve and I would be given better opportunities – so I decided to move on. I was lucky enough to get the first job I went for, which involved supporting people in their own homes following discharge from hospital.
With the local authority, I entered a whole new world of fantastic training, good pay and a supportive management team. I had opportunities to progress and I loved the choice and independence we were able to provide.
‘Out there alone’
After a career break I tried to return to council work but it was apparent from the off that there were very few jobs left, so I started a new position at a private homecare provider.
Training was two hours in a room ticking boxes and the next day I was out there alone, providing care to a very unstable client with dementia. Fortunately I was able to rely on the good training I’d had previously, but I did wonder how others would have coped.
All of the things I’d witnessed in my first job and assumed had been stopped were now seeping into the home care workforce. Little or no choice. Frantic rushed calls with no opportunity to engage in conversation. Inexperienced, unsupported staff working for a pittance.
I thought things had improved but care was becoming about making huge profits not quality. The distinction for me was stark; I had lived in a bubble of perfection in my previous home care role and wrongly assumed it would be the same in the private sector.
Staff turnover was huge and regardless of people’s ability to care, it seemed that keeping the numbers up was just too important to worry about anything else.
‘It’s not rocket science’
But really none of this is rocket science. As my mother always used to say ‘if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys’. With budgets cut to the bone, huge private equity firms have taken control of the home care sector and driven the cost down to completely unattainable levels.
Staff are working 60 to 80 hours a week but they are still struggling to live. We need improved training, we need decent minimum pricing standards and we need sufficient funding in the system.
Only when we have a valued, respected and adequately paid workforce can we ensure vulnerable older people are protected in the one place they should feel safe – their homes.
That’s why people should join UNISON’s campaign to improve our home care service across the UK and visit www.savecarenow.org.uk