Relative merits

Promoting the organisation and making the right appointments are just two of the tasks that chairs of trustees carry out. In a small organisation, such as the Relatives and Residents Association, this role is all the more vital, reports Graham Hopkins

Judy Downey
Job: Chair of board of trustees, Relatives and Residents Association
Qualifications: Diploma in social administration
Last Job: Responsible for practice and policy on regulation and complaints, Social Care Group / Social Services Inspectorate.
First Job: Assistant to chief executive, StepneyJewish Girls’ Club, east London

Dorothy White was a distinguished civil servant who helped set up the NHS. When her mother went into residential care, White was shocked to find that she no longer had a role in caring – the home just took over.

And no one seemed to be providing help, support or advice. If she, with her background, felt rudderless she realised others must be adrift in the same boat. So, in 1992, White launched the Relatives Association, later to become the Relatives and Residents Association.

“When my mother went into care I didn’t know where to turn either,” says Judy Downey, chair of the board of trustees, which sets, plans and monitors the organisation’s vision, mission and values. “All the normal channels of information stop existing – somebody from your social services department might help if they are involved but for one in three cases they are not. It’s very hard to evaluate standards and care, what looks good compared with what is good, what staff ratios are like, what the atmosphere is like, what you have a right to expect and what’s normal.”

She continues: “And all these are decisions you have to make when you are unhappy, worried, emotionally involved and usually panic-stricken. You may also have a job, partner and children. We make decisions at times of huge crisis without support and often with less information than you’d get about a package holiday.”

This is where the association steps in. Its helpline provides accurate and up-to-date information. And with 410,000 older people – average age 84 – in care homes in the UK there is a huge number of people to reach.

“We are a tiny organisation with a tiny core staff,” says Downey. “We rely heavily on volunteers – many of whom have had parents, relatives or partners in homes and so know what they are talking about. Volunteers have also set up our website and the database of all our contacts- a rich source of information.”

One of Downey’s roles as chair is to promote the organisation, part of which has been overseeing development of a new logo, image and website. Part of it is also to project the group’s voice nationally. “We are regularly consulted by the Department of Health and Commission for Social Care Inspection,” says Downey. “We are also co-sponsoring Liberal Democrat MP Paul Burstow’s Care of Older and Incapacitated People (Human Rights) Bill, which has its second reading on 12 May. We also publish practice guidelines for care staff, such as on dental care for older people in residential care and, most recently, Moving Stories, which looks at the impact of admission into a care home on residents’ partners.”

As all small organisations know, staff are vital: there is no capacity to carry people, everyone has to be productive. “Because we’re very small the appointment of our new chief executive was crucial. We stressed the need for someone who is deeply committed to what we stand for.”

Downey appointed Dr Gillian Dalley, former director of the Centre for Policy on Ageing, who has the right academic and research background and has a mother in a care home. Downey says: “She knows what it is like, and her mother is in a wonderful care home. It’s not just about negatives; we’re very much about working in partnership and promoting good practice, learning from it and making things better.”

That the overall quality of care provided in residential homes needs improving is not, according to Downey, because they are in the grip of “the evil of cruelty” but more that people are “completely captured by low expectations”.

She adds: “A lot of poor practice comes from careless care – and staff failing to imagine how it must feel to be immobile, confused or dependent. Keeping someone waiting to take them to the loo is one of the most callous and demeaning things you can do. It’s about training and good example.”

And good example is something which the Relatives and Residents Association hopes to continue to lead by.


  • Focus on areas you care about the most.
  • Invest in top quality staff.
  • Trust your instincts.


  • Expand, expand, expand.
  • Hire anyone who seems plausible.
  • Accept all sponsorship indiscriminately.


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