On reflection: Mark Drinkwater on differences between care homes

Mark Drinkwater is impressed by a care home he visited but, after his experience working in one, he is left wondering what happens at night


A recent trip to my home town gave me the chance to catch up with some relatives, including Mabel* who moved to a care home last year. With such a variation in standards in residential care, I was prepared for the worst.

Before my visit, a relative light-heartedly referred to Mabel and her co-residents as “inmates”. Although uttered in jest, the comment did have a ring of truth, for the door to Mabel’s corridor can only be unlocked by punching a number into a keypad.

Intended as a security measure to prevent vulnerable residents wandering off, it served to curtail the independence of all residents, irrespective of their mental capacity.

When I caught up with Mabel she did have a few minor gripes, but found the staff’s failings amusing, turning their tales of incompetence into humorous anecdotes. Never one to hold back when given a chance to express her opinions, Mabel seemed happy enough with her accommodation.

Some shortcomings

Sure, there were shortcomings with the home. Mabel was irked about her weight gain – she had put on more than a stone in the previous 12 months and, by her own admission, she hadn’t needed bulking up. “At least we know they’re feeding her,” another relative glibly commented later.

But, from what I saw, the place had a lot going for it: situated in a picturesque location, the spacious home was nicely decorated and well-maintained. More importantly, the staff were friendly and attentive and treated residents with dignity and respect.

It was a world away from what I’d feared. Perhaps I should stop watching undercover documentaries about poor standards in care homes. (It made me wonder whether a television broadcaster would ever commission a genre-defying documentary about high standards in some care homes. Surely there’s enough material out there?)

Who knows whether these adequate standards in Mabel’s home were maintained 24 hours a day, or whether what I saw was merely staff on their best behaviour for visiting hours.

Care home memories

The visit reminded me of my time working in a care home. I was one of the staff who worked office hours, while a team of four worked “waking nights”. The suspicion among daytime colleagues was that the night staff also had day jobs, and that they used their shifts to catch up on sleep. The joke shared between colleagues was that our nocturnal counterparts were called “waking night staff” because these workers always needed waking up!

There did seem to be reasonable grounds for suspecting these colleagues had spent most of their stint resting their eyelids, rather than attending to the night-time needs of residents.

Aside from the bleary-eyes and hair askew in the morning handover, the most noteworthy indicator was the residents’ frequent complaints that “the night staff never do anything for us, they’re always asleep”.

These claims did not go unnoticed by senior staff who indicated they would do unannounced inspections of the night service. But they never did – not during the year that I was there, anyway. Perhaps they were a bit too mindful of their own beauty sleep, or saw too little incentive to open that can of worms. Certainly not at 3am.

However, the lack of sufficient checks ultimately compromised the safety of residents. Who knows how many night-time incidents went unnoticed because the staff were snoozing? No one would dare imagine the needs of young people in care being overlooked in the same way.

It’s in all our interests to safeguard the interests of older people. We would all like to live in a home that preserves our dignity, independence and safety.

Mark Drinkwater is a community worker based in Southwark, London

This article is published in the 18 February issue of Community Care under the heading By day a care home, by night a dorm for out-of-hours staff

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