Crisis in care homes: how can we improve standards in the context of austerity?

Liz Lloyd, Professor of Social Gerontology in the Centre for Health and Social Care discusses the factors behind deteriorating standards in care homes.

There is a crisis in British care homes, arising not merely from bad behaviour by staff members but from the economic and political context of the social care market.

There are currently close to half a million individual places (‘beds’) used by around 4% of the population aged 65+ and 17% of people aged 85+. Statistics vary somewhat, according to what is being measured, but we can be certain that although the number of older people in the population have risen, a smaller proportion of them live in a care home, that they are older on average when they first enter the home and have more complex, long-term illness that require more skilled assistance.

Older people are also increasingly likely to pay at least a part of their care home fees. According to Laing and Buisson’s 2012-2013 Care of Elderly People UK Market Survey, some 43.4% of older residents in the independent sector paid the full costs and a further 14% received partial council support and topped up their fees. The majority therefore still rely wholly or partially on public resources but this proportion is falling.

Running parallel to these changes is the rise in private ownership of care homes and payment of fees. Over three decades, the proportion of places in local authority run care homes in the UK has dropped while the proportion in the private, for-profit, sector has risen so it now has a 75% share of all places. The voluntary, not-for-profit, sector share has been more stable but is falling slightly. The current crisis involves increasing levels of provider failure and exit from the care home market. Several big providers are deeply in debt, raising fears of a major collapse like that of Southern Cross in 2008. Owners point to rising costs as a consequence of the introduction of the national living wage and falling profits because fees paid by local councils have not risen in line with increased costs. The consequences for providers is an unsustainable business model.

The consequences for older people who need residential care are evident in delayed discharges and hospital waiting lists, a point illustrated perfectly in the case of Mrs Iris Sibley, who remained in the Bristol Royal Infirmary for six months while her family sought a care home place. For residents and their families the insecurity associated with provider failure means added anxiety and stress. Add to this the associated problem of worsening standards, which the Care Quality Commission fears will grow in the absence of major reform. Mrs Sibley’s son described how one place she was offered was so bad that he ‘wouldn’t put a sick dog in there’.

Not all older residents experience the same thing, of course. According to Norman Lamb MP, former Health Minister, the market has come to benefit older people with enough money to pay for their own care while disadvantaging those who rely on state support. Care homes where all or most residents pay their own fees are more secure than those that rely mostly on the local authority payments and are more able to absorb the additional cost of the national living wage. We might question why anyone would argue against a decent level of pay for the people who care for us when we are sick and disabled, but the dominant theme in social care for older people is that it should be as cheap as possible – hence, high numbers of migrant workers in the care home sector.
In fact, debates about care homes focus overwhelmingly on keeping costs down and agreeing who should pay. Should it be individuals (during their lifetime or after their deaths), their families or the public in general? Health and social care are frequently portrayed as unaffordable in the context of the ageing of the baby boomer generation.

I declare an interest here, being a baby boomer, but take issue with such a simplistic argument. Demographic trends have an impact on demand for care, for sure, but there is evidently a wider set of factors at play. Indeed it is arguable that demographic trends provide a useful rationale for cuts to public spending that would be made anyway. Policy-makers have placed themselves in a bind as cuts to public spending have impacted on private sector profits, proposals to recoup the cost of care from older people’s estates after death are met with outrage in the press, as are stories like that of Mrs Sibley.

Evidence on what makes a care home a good place to live and work is abundant. Higher standards of care are usually reflected in higher levels of staffing, more skilled workers and a culture of person-centred care that attends to the whole range of an individual’s needs, not merely to their basic physical requirements. A culture of ‘person-centred care’ promotes a sense of belonging and security and enables residents to maximise their capacities, enjoy new experiences and take risks. Care homes are likely to remain a part of the care system, despite their reputation, so we need to focus on standards. A sizeable number of us who will live in a care home at some stage of our lives, or have a close relative who does. But more importantly, care homes are inextricably linked with other parts of the care system so it is in our interests to think about standards in care homes as a policy issue that affects us all.

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