Page last updated at 08:55 GMT, Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Dementia care 'failing' the elderly

By Dinah Lord
Executive producer, Can Gerry Robinson Fix Dementia Care Homes?

Gerry Robinson
Gerry Robinson believes people with dementia have a right to quality of life

In the next 20 years over a million of us will have dementia. This is a frightening statistic. What I find equally staggering, however, is our reluctance to confront the state of dementia care in this country.

Gerry Robinson and I set out to highlight some of the difficulties facing the industry and examine the general level of care that prevails in many care homes throughout the country - often with shocking results.

Lack of training

Gerry's father had dementia when he died, so he has personal experience of dealing with the effects of this dreadful illness. Gerry thinks we are burying our heads in the sand.

"We want to believe, perhaps need to believe, that our loved ones are in some kind of happy, fuzzy, state in homes where they are well looked after and cared for night and day. The stark reality is that, for most people, that cosy picture is a long way from the truth," he says.

One home we visited was Woodland House in Torquay. In spite of the 'adequate' rating it had received at the time of its last inspection by the Care Quality Commission, Gerry was shocked by some of the things he found, not least the lack of specialist training amongst staff.

Incredibly there is no minimum standard of training required to work in a dementia care home, and in order to own a home, the only stipulation is that you must not have a criminal record.

With the majority of homes in the UK in private hands, one of the biggest challenges facing the industry is how to provide good quality care while still turning a profit.

Gerry meets Summervale resident Ken, who tells him what it is like to live there

As a successful businessman himself, Gerry is not against private enterprise, but it needs to work well for its intended aim.

When we visited Robin Cannon, the owner of a number of care homes in Devon, he was under pressure from his financial backers to sell up, but the only interest he had was from property developers rather than care providers.

If he were to sell to a property developer, the home's residents would have to move on, but with a third of dementia sufferers dying within a year of being rehoused, this is not the same as selling a poorly performing corner shop.

High-profit enterprises

Gerry's feeling is that running a care home is not complex from a business point of view. "It's like running a hotel with permanent occupants - it's pretty easy in that sense," he says.

He is more concerned that some of the homes we visited did not appear to have care as the number one priority - and that, he maintains, is absolutely crucial to a home's success.

Only by improving vastly our standards of care and our investment in research can we ever hope to end the growing misery dementia causes
Rebecca Wood
Alzheimer's Research Trust

It is worth remembering that these are high-profit, recession-proof enterprises - many in the industry routinely make a 30% profit on their homes, compared with the 6% Tesco makes. There is a clear margin for financial investment in the care they provide.

We visited Merevale, a home in Warwickshire that manages to make residents feel alive and happy.

Residents there really live in the home and even help to run it. What is interesting is that Merevale does not cost more than most residential care homes to run.

The approach of actively involving residents in the home not only works on an emotional level, but it makes good business sense too. This home is rated as 'excellent' and is always full. The staff are valued, so the recruitment and training costs are low. Everyone wins.

Gerry recommended many of the practices he witnessed in Merevale to a care home we visited in Leicester called Summervale.

Immediate impact

He even asked dementia care consultant David Sheard to come into Summervale to train the staff.

David tried to get them to think about care in a completely different way, encouraging them to look at the care centre as a home.

David Sheard, of Dementia Care Matters, explains what makes Merevale a success

So the work of turning Summervale into a home began - the staff got rid of their uniforms, started eating with the residents and set about filling up the stark empty spaces with distractions such as dolls, toys and other everyday objects.

Gerry noticed an immediate impact, not only on residents, but on the staff too. It was fascinating to see how quickly these small changes took hold.

We all thought when we started that it would be easier to fix dementia care homes than it proved to be.

So many of the care staff do really care about the residents, but we were genuinely surprised at the levels of resistance - usually from those higher up - to what Gerry was trying to do.

Rebecca Wood, Chief Executive of the Alzheimer's Research Trust, also recognises that the dementia care system is "antiquated " and "lags far behind achievements in medicine and care elsewhere".

"We cannot continue to brush this problem under the carpet, and only by improving vastly our standards of care and our investment in research can we ever hope to end the growing misery dementia causes now and in the future," she adds.

I hope this series will make people realise that the care industry in this country has a long way to go before we can be sure that our loved ones will spend the final years of their lives in a happy and truly caring environment.

Can Gerry Robinson Fix Dementia Care Homes? is broadcast on BBC Two at 2100 GMT on Tuesday 8th and Tuesday 15th December.

Or catch-up afterwards on BBC iPlayer (UK only).

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