Last reviewed 28 August 2018

On Care Homes Open Day this year, Jef Smith took the opportunity to visit a selection of homes in his local area to see if the Day presents a successful public relations exercise.

What all of the homes had in common was a party atmosphere. Entertainers, from choirs to conjurors, went through their paces; imitation Queens strolled around; Deputy Mayors said a few well-chosen words; residents, some kitted out with fancy hats or holding little union jacks, sat around, many clearly not sure what was going on; there was unlimited buffet style food and plenty to drink, some of it alcoholic. In short, things were about as far as possible from the everyday routine of real care home life.

So if I had been looking at the homes I visited as a prospective resident, this was a far from accurate picture of what I might expect. It will be objected of course that any serious seeker after residential care would set about their research rather more systematically, but those of us who might need support at some stage are at the very least gathering background information as time goes by.

If selling residential care is a serious PR challenge, the organisers of Care Homes Open Day should at least be congratulated for trying to think up a new and positive line. My quarrel with them is that the execution of the strategy has not lived up to the original concept. Opening up homes to their local communities sounds fine, but if it results in the sort of extravagant parties I have been seeing over recent years, it’s time to recognise that such heavily manufactured presentations bear little relationship to reality, and could even be counter-productive. A radical rethink is in order.

First, do all homes have to open on the same day? I can see that holding one national event — it was even internationally co-ordinated this year — lends itself to what one might call a big bang of publicity. The alternative model is the National Gardens Scheme under which keen garden watchers can visit a different garden more or less every day through the summer. Under such an arrangement, homes would not have to compete for local attention and could let themselves be seen in truer colour, and members of the public with a serious interest could get to see a whole range of homes and experience something closer to typical care practice. I suspect the cumulative effect would be considerably more powerful than what took place on 21 April.

There is of course still an issue about how a home presents itself when it opens its doors to all and sundry. My first rule would be to get rid of the idea that there’s a party; instead, make what’s going on as real as possible. At one home I visited this year, residents had been asked (told?) to wear their Sunday Best, as if their normal attire was not thought good enough for critical spectators; that’s cruel, and it’s giving visitors a false impression. Everyday warmth and well-organised care is what should be on display.

Second, offer visitors a serious presentation of the home’s objectives and practice, along with a tour of the building and a chance to meet and talk with staff, and perhaps selected residents. This could take the form of a session, repeated at intervals through the day with times advertised in advance. Of course there’s an element of artificiality in such pre-planned programmes — by all means lay on some modest welcoming refreshments — but people will know and recognise that they can’t observe the more intimate aspects of care and will respect your honesty.

Don’t duck the more difficult elements in a home’s life. Visitors are aware that many residents have dementia, are often incontinent, generally need help with personal functions and tasks, get ill and even die; they will respect frank discussion of these issues as well as descriptions of jollier elements like activity programmes, birthdays and other festivities. Looking at this year’s Open Day publicity, I am struck by how almost everybody in the photos is laughing or at least smiling broadly; surely we’re grown up enough to be aware that real life isn’t quite like that.

Any attempt to bring “the community” into a home inevitably runs up against the issue of residents’ rights. “This is their home,” I often hear it said by staff, which is of course only half true. Residents’ bedrooms can be guarded as private and certainly off-limits to visitors except when explicitly invited, but lounges and dining rooms are necessarily semi-public spaces; here, the best that can be offered to residents using them is that they will be warned when outsiders might be expected and not involved in conversation unless they want to be. School children, ministers of religion, local councillors, relatives and others need to respect that privacy, and staff should set a good example. The image of a home as an area constantly stimulated by fresh bursts of visitors is as unattractive as that of the uninspiring closed-off isolation which is the opposite extreme.

There is no silver bullet to resolve the question of how residential care generally, or any home in particular, combats the sadly poor image which has become lodged in the public mind. It’s going to be a long slog requiring continuing effort rather than a single big open day once a year; homes deserve better than that. Call me a party pooper, but I think I’m being realistic.