by Colin Campbell
IT is a matter of personal choice whether one would prefer to drop dead in a bar or, or in my case, on an exercise bike (as has happened, albeit very rarely) with your soul spinning towards eternity before you hit the ground. Or end up in a care home. On balance, I think I’d prefer the ground-hitting option. A similar sense of bravado inclines many other people to feel the same. But such matters cannot be conveniently pre-arranged so the end product is that as such morbid thoughts become increasingly relevant with age, few of us know how the hell we’ll end up, or how speedily we’ll get there.
A care home is the last choice of residence for many people, largely based on the three S’s: shock-horror, stigma and sadness.
The shock-horror – and there’s more than enough circulating in the media – is based on allegations of mistreatment, neglect and even cruelty within some homes. The stigma comes with care homes being seen as places to vegetate in a fog of boredom and indifference, a final bed and not much more until you die. And the sadness – which many of us have experienced as visitors – lies in seeing elderly relatives slip into a living coma, and gradually losing all the interests they enjoyed in life. A painful experience for everyone – and maybe particularly the relatives – who have gone through it.
Is there any good news around? Anything to relieve the blanket of doom and gloom surrounding these places?
Well yes there is, actually, although you’d have to search long and hard in the mainstream media to find even a shred of it.
I know people who work in the care sector, in Inverness and elsewhere, at all levels.
The general staff are, as I’ve written elsewhere, are underpaid for the kind of very difficult tasks they sometimes have to perform. But the good people I know get on with the job, take it in their stride as best they can, and are generally remarkably upbeat about their work, which many remain devoted to for years.
But the biggest and most uplifting change in the care sector in recent years is the new-found and deeply held conviction that the time has come to try and banish that “residents as vegetables” stigma for good.
I’ve spoken at length to senior sources within the industry and while it is inevitable that they will try and put the best gloss on what they do their commitment to change comes across to me, at least, as determined and utterly genuine.
One driving force behind this has come in part from the all-powerful Care Inspectorate, whose watchdogs can arrive unannounced at any care home at any time to carry a searching on-the-spot examination of conditions there throughout the premises. In recent years several Inverness homes have received highly critical reviews, the lowest allocation of point-scoring and the implicit warning that the next step unless rapid improvements are made will be enforced closure. The pressure on them for change then becomes enormous and managers in this situation know their jobs are on the line – if they are allowed to remain.
But what, therefore, is the good news? It is that there has been a strenuous, calculated and sophisticated “activity based” effort to engage with residents, to discover sometimes by probing into fading memories to find what interests them and what can provide mental and physical stimulation to lighten up and brighten up their lives. There may be some jargon in that last sentence but the intention is clear.
The “entertainment” for care home residents used to consist of occasional nights of card games or bingo with old-time music playing in the background. Some, I know, found this about as appealing as a visit to a cemetery. My late aunt Cathy, in her late 70s in one Inverness home, viewed these proceeding as so moribund and mournful that she refused to take part in any in them. She viewed it as simply “going through the motions”.
One very senior care home source told me: “The aim and determination now is to put that era behind us. We are now much more focussed on individual residents and what in particular they’d enjoy doing.
“We aim to stimulate people mentally and physically, and to keep their minds active. It is, of course, all about trying to improve their quality of life.
“An activities co-ordinator talks to folk, finds out what actually interests them – ranging from clay-making, art and painting, planting outdoors in the garden, dressmaking, woodwork, sport, football – whatever their preference is. There is a place for card games and bingo but even that can be adapted so residents themselves gain more enjoyment from it.
“When I was activities co-ordinator I got to know each resident personally and talked with them about the things they enjoyed doing at an earlier stage in their lives. One example – and there are many others – was of a woman in her 80s who arrived here having apparently lost all interest in life.
“She was waiting to die. Now she’s up and about, making friends, getting along fine with people and if she’s sitting silently in her chair it’s because she’s on the internet using her I-pad. It’s great to see and it gives me personal pleasure and satisfaction. That woman’s life has been turned around.”
Special outing are also arranged. One Inverness care home operates what is termed a “wishing well” scheme where arrangements are made to get residents out and about – to a local football match and a vintage car rally as two examples – to keep in touch with the outside world and reassure them there’s still a lot going on out there. And that a care home is not an institution to which you’re carted off and will be marooned in for the rest of your rather miserable life.
I personally know the people I’ve spoken to and I believe 100 per cent that real efforts are being made to bring about change.
Does that mean that it’s all wine – or Lucozade – and roses, all sweetness and light. Of course not. As more and more lifespans extend well beyond the three score years and ten duration accepted as the norm by our forefathers it seems that the “care crisis” of the near future we are so often warned about – and about which pretty much nothing seems to be being done in terms of increasing bed space and availability – will worsen and grow.
But it’s not all doom and gloom and waiting to die in the Inverness and Highland care homes we have at present. This article is a reasoned and very well-informed effort to counter the ubiquitous “three S’s” which dominate the mainstream media – the shock-horror, the stigma and the sadness. Care homes and care home staff get a relentlessly bad rap in the media, based on the endless hunt for headlines. But there’s another side to their story. And it deserves to be told.