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Page last updated at 10:34 GMT, Thursday, 9 April 2009 11:34 UK
Diary of an undercover carer

Care of the elderly is a professional job. Assisting medication, feeding, changing, bathing, even using hoists demands a level of expertise we expect in the care of some of our most vulnerable people. But Panorama had heard a different story, with months of research and personal accounts suggesting serious systemic failings in some of Britain's biggest homecare suppliers.

Undercover Camera

Video diary of an undercover 'carer'

That's why they sent two reporters undercover to see this first hand.

When applying for jobs, both Arifa Farooq and Hayley Cutts said they had some caring experience but no formal training.

Before they started they completed four days of hands-on instruction with Age Concern Training, exceeding the government's national minimum standards. Emergency medical cover was on standby throughout the time they were working.

Here Hayley talks about her experiences working undercover as a carer in York and Harrow.

While going undercover is not an assignment that I care for particularly, in this case the need to expose the neglect that many older people experience at the hands of care companies in this country outweighed my personal reluctance.

The Panorama team had already met many elderly men and women dissatisfied with their care who felt ignored and neglected. Some had suffered illness and harm because of a system of care that did not have enough staff or time to care for them.

We also spoke to carers and managers who felt their profession was being down-graded from a vocation to simply a job.

Many just wanted some human contact and care to lift the loneliness they were experiencing at the end of their lives.

While they themselves suspected that the care they were providing was sub-standard, most were unable to go on the record. To see what was happening in homes around the country, secret cameras were the only way forward.

I secured jobs with two care providers, Carewatch in York and Care UK in Harrow, north-west of London. Both describe themselves on their websites as leading independent care providers.

'Do not patronise'

My colleague Arifa Farooq and I were sent by the BBC on a custom designed four-day training course with Age Concern Training. We were shown everything from how to bath a frail person, change incontinence pads, move people safely and use lifting equipment, even how to talk to them without being patronising.

Hayley Cutts on stairs
The undercover filming took place throughout a carer shift

Those training sessions really drummed home the responsibility I was about to take on. For the first time, I realised I could be the only person a care user sees all day. Without my help, many would not be able to do the most basic things, like go to the toilet or get out of bed.

When I got my first job, I was even more grateful for what I had been taught by Age Concern Training. Carewatch in York sent me out to care for their unsuspecting service users after training which involved a 90-minute one-to-one tutorial and four, 20-minute training DVDs. The DVDs did not show me key tasks for any domiciliary carer, including changing incontinence pads.

I would be paid £5.90 per hour at Carewatch and £6.50 per hour at Care UK.

While undercover I would be, in addition to being a carer, gathering first hand evidence for the programme.

I had cameras fitted, a laptop, diary and editing equipment prepared. While my work as a carer would take precedence, an accurate record of events had to be kept.

For the first two days in York, I was paired with other, more experienced carers but on day three - Christmas Day - I was on my own with a woman who needed constant care for my entire shift.

Alone, unwell, vulnerable

She was alone, unwell and vulnerable and I was in her home. Yet the company had not waited for my Criminal Records Bureau check to come back. This is a legal requirement. When we put it to them, Carewatch apologised.

The work was both physically demanding and emotionally draining. The people I looked after were frail and often had terminal illnesses or dementia. I was acutely aware in some cases that the care I was giving them was helping them spend their last few weeks and months in the comfort of their own homes.

While exhausted, I also felt an enduring respect and admiration for some of the carers I had met

That knowledge made the chaotic schedules and late running appointments of my first two shifts even more upsetting as we were late or had to rush people to get on to our next appointment and even missed a visit.

One night in York, we were so late we were actually running to and from the car to get to clients.

We arrived three hours late to our last call of the night. We should have been there at 2200 to put someone to bed. Instead it was 0100 and we could not even get through the door of the sheltered accommodation.

We had to leave not knowing if the client was okay, and that they probably spent the night in their chair.

The days could be long, starting at 0630 and not finishing till after 2200 on double shifts.

Human contact

My day as a carer then gave way to my work as a journalist. Time off was spent writing detailed notes, filming a video diary, downloading the day's footage onto my laptop and re-charging the cameras.

Kusum Rawal
Kusum Rawal's family believes their presence ensures their mother's care

Most of my fellow carers worked hard and tried their best to deliver care against almost impossible odds.

Almost two months after I signed up to go undercover, it was over. While exhausted, I also felt an enduring respect and admiration for some of the carers I had met.

They had worked alongside me under the pressure and time restraints set down by the system, and yes, they may have rushed some of the service users and yes, they may not always have given care to the best of their abilities - but they were working in a system that did not allow them to deliver care properly and, unless things change, they will continue to face the same problems day after day.

I also felt a lot of love and concern for the elderly service users I had met. Many just wanted some human contact and care to lift the loneliness they were experiencing at the end of their lives.

I left my job wishing that I could have done more to help them and hoping that this programme can be the springboard for wholesale improvements in care provision for older people in Britain. Our parents and grandparents deserve it.

Britain's Homecare Scandal: A Panorama Special is on BBC One, Thursday 9 April at 2100


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