Care News

What makes a good care worker? There are dangers in stereotyping care home staff, says Noreen Wainwright

Most of us don't think about care homes or people who work in them until we have to, either because we ourselves or a loved one needs care.

As a result, care staff are generally stereotyped as people who only work in care if they are not qualified to do anything else. This does no favours to anyone – the care staff, the people they care for, or any of us. We might also feel a vague sense of guilt. "I couldn't do it," is the usual comment, quickly followed by, "someone has to …"

In reality, people who work in care make up a complex cross-section of the working population.

Yes, some are poorly qualified and fall into this job, because there are almost always vacancies. In my opinion, as a former NVQ assessor in care homes, it is not usually a good job for a school-leaver because it is difficult to empathise with a person who is 70 years older than you are, and there is a real danger that a youngster in this role becomes desensitised and ultimately loses compassion. But I have met great carers who happen to be young – they almost always work in a care setting where the matron is highly visible and very involved in the training and mentoring of staff.

One of the best things to see in a care home is a good mix of ages in the people working there. One of the best all-round influences is the older care worker, who has come to the job later in life. They have worked in offices for years, are graduates, and thought they were well settled in a different job. There is usually a trigger that causes them to move into this work, and it is often that they've had someone in the family who needed care. Almost always, in my experience, these latecomers into the care field are wonderful. They tend to have compassion, life experience and, perhaps most important, are doing the job because they really want to.

Care workers generally receive the minimum wage, or slightly more. When they have completed the NVQ level 2, it seems fairly standard practice to award a rise of 10p an hour. One woman told me she was leaving her care home to get a job behind the till at a local store. She would be paid at the same rate, and would have evenings and bank holidays off. While the private sector predominates in care and the profit margin rules, this iniquity is likely to remain.

There are no magic answers to the question of how to improve the life of care workers – and ultimately the experience of those they are caring for. But, with a bit of imagination and goodwill, it should not be impossible. An instant step that could be taken is that anyone who profits from owning a care home should also have to work at least one shift a month, on the floor.

More of us need to be aware of what care workers do; links between the local community and care homes could be much stronger. It is a sobering thought that one day many of us will be glad of the best carers we can possibly get.

• Noreen Wainwright worked as an NVQ assessor with staff in local care homes in north Staffordshire from 2005 to 2010

Noreen Wainwright Wednesday 12 May 2010 07.00 BST The Guardian


Social care users 'need more help'

The public sector auditor has warned of shortcomings in the Government's social care reforms, saying many users are struggling to cope with the new system.

Under the "personal budgets" scheme, local authorities give cash direct to users to choose their own care services, rather than having the council decide for them.

But a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) indicated some were finding it difficult to purchase care, with as few as half saying their local authority had made it easy for them to get service information and advice.

A growing number of users are employing personal assistants to help them with their care, but almost a third (31%) are finding it difficult to cope with being an employer, the research found. And although local authorities are responsible for those who fund their own care if they run out of money, the majority (60%) of councils do not know how many "self-funders" there are in their area.

Few councils were found to offer formal support to help prevent people falling back on state funding and the NAO estimated the total cost to the taxpayer of the state having to pay for self-funders who run out of money could rise from £500 million to £1 billion per year by 2035.

Examples of good practice in implementing personal budgets were identified in various local authorities, but the report - Oversight of User Choice and Provider Competition in Care Markets - recommended that these be more widely shared as they were currently very localised.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: "As the population ages and more pressure is put on social care, the Department of Health must ensure that its oversight of the care market is robust, that people have access to the information and support that they need and that it has arrangements in place in the event of large providers getting into financial difficulty."

Labour MP Margaret Hodge, chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, said encouraging user choice and provider competition by extending the use of personal budgets was a welcome aim. But she added: "The failure of Southern Cross is a stark example of why the Government needs plans in place for when large providers of social care get into difficulties. Individuals need support in managing their budgets and local authorities must manage the costs to the taxpayer."

The personal budgets scheme was started by the last Labour government and championed by Ivan Lewis, the former care services minister.

Care services minister Paul Burstow said: "The National Audit Office report is a helpful contribution to this work on how local authorities can achieve value for money so that more users and carers - a large proportion of whom are not receiving state support - are able to exercise choice in local markets. The report's comments on provider failure are a helpful contribution to our wider work on market oversight for social care. As outlined in a written ministerial statement last week, the Government is considering whether additional measures of market oversight are required. We will shortly be publishing a discussion paper seeking views on this issue."