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3 Lessons that have kept us fresh

by Ruth French, Operations Director, Stow Healthcare

Whilst the pandemic has rightly occupied the central focus point for every care provider and manager in the last 18 months, there is a danger that in blinkering our vision too much, we forget all of the exciting and innovative work that makes us the outstanding, or aspiring outstanding homes that we are.  At Stow Healthcare, we have been making a concerted effort to reject the pandemic as the only thing we have time to care about – we simply can’t afford to overlook the other critical elements that we have become known for: super-personalised care; top quality training for staff; and standing out from the crowd.  So here are three lessons that have kept us fresh:

Keep Challenging Yourself

© Ross Harvey

In July 2020 we began a 13 bed extension at the twice Outstanding rated Brandon Park Nursing Home to form the new ‘Maple Memory Centre’. Our ambition was to create a progressive model for dementia care and to lead provision in East Anglia; we wanted to create an environment very unlike that which we could see around us, where people living with dementia were living without opportunities, without risk and without any reason to get up each morning. The centre uses Montessori principles, where we put meaningful things in the hands of our ‘family members’ living with memory loss – a broom to sweep the floor, or a trowel to weed the garden.  This sits squarely in CQC’s Regulation 9: Person-Centred Care. Our enabling environment aims to reduce falls and pressure ulcers, and use of anti-psychotics.

© Ross Harvey

Staffed by ‘Homemakers’, the Memory Centre has a homely and non-clinical feel – no uniforms, no separated job roles – it is a proper household where everyone mucks in!  The family members living in the Maple Memory Centre are benefitting hugely:  Colin thought it was ‘a hotel’ when he first moved in, but with staff encouragement, can now prepare his breakfast and has learnt to shave himself again; Heather happily does the washing up each evening without prompting – she loves her job; Pat, previously a keen artist, has started painting again, and has been skilfully mixing paints to form the bark of a giant tree for a display, “a tree trunk isn’t just one colour of brown you know”, said Pat.  Finally, Doris came for a month’s respite; when her family took her back home, she outright refused to leave the car and demanded to be brought straight ‘home’ to the Memory Centre!

There have been lots of times through the development of this project where I have had to go beyond my comfort zone, but after so long focusing on the pandemic, this was hugely refreshing and invigorating and reignited my passion for seeing how far we could go to change social care.

Keep Developing and Supporting your People

At every level of social care, we are all dealing with colleagues and team members who are at times (or often) exhausted, despondent and unsure if they can carry on.  Many providers, including Stow Healthcare have worked very hard to support the people on the ground who are there day after day delivering care at the sharp end. 

Communication remains key; government guidance is still relentless, complex, and changeable.  It needs to be read, digested and set it out for staff in an accessible way, so staff feel supported and safe.  In our 2020, 98% of staff agreed that Stow Healthcare had been responsive to government changes.  We still provide a short ‘Need to Know’ brief to staff each week with the latest changes, and have experimented successfully with vlogs, staff meetings on Zoom and director updates that flash up on mobile point of care devices.

Mental health and wellbeing support has been front and centre of our work for the whole team.  We developed a new ‘Raise your Hand’ mental wellbeing pocket support guide for staff, which was rolled out across the company, along with counselling support.  We have offered team and individual counselling, as well as additional leadership wellbeing support, which has been critical to keeping our team going.

We have steered away from elearning as much as possible, choosing instead to deliver most training through Zoom in small groups with our training partners.  This has been vital, especially for those new to care.  Relying wholly on elearning just doesn’t give people what they need to do the job safely.

We have also kept innovating, developing bespoke training; for example, our innovative ‘homemaker’ training programme helps those working in our Maple Memory Centre live the Montessori principles. It would not have been fair to introduce a totally new care concept and expected staff to understand it without a full chance to explore the theory and practice.

One recently trained homemaker told us: “I will have to think differently and not care in the way that I used to…I used to think I was being really helpful by doing things for people and I have to rethink this now as I may have deskilled people unintentionally in the past”.  Understanding memory systems helps homemakers think differently and creatively, and shows them how to integrate everyday household items into meaningful activities that incorporate movement, and gross as well as fine motor skills, to promote independence. 

Don’t forget the things that make you stand out!

Bringing us back to where we started, it really is critical to keep doing the extra things that make you special in the first place.  For us at Stow Healthcare, that has meant getting creative with our annual inter-home competitions – Stow in the Snow and Stow in Bloom, with virtual judging, and just as much fun, but also trying new things for 2021.

Just prior to the pandemic, we had planned to organise a series of coordinated events to coincide with national Dying Matters Week, and we weren’t going to be put off this year!  Now we were seasoned pros on various conferencing platforms, we launched into a week long series of events with gusto! 

We developed an innovative programme of webinars, supported by a number of different in-home activities to support open conversations about death and dying, even learning about Ancient Egyptian death rituals and humanist funerals, which sparked lots of discussion!  We achieved our aim of getting people talking more openly about death and dying, with some outstanding feedback that showed that the week had impacted people’s lives – people got wills and LPAs drafted as a result, sought bereavement counselling, and talked openly about their own funeral wishes.  We also learnt some detailed information about some residents’ wishes for the future. 

The bottom line is, when you are dealing with a pandemic, the easy thing to do is batten down the hatches and stay safe.  In reality, we now have to accept that we are going to be living with COVID in some form for a long time to come.  We now need to start that process of opening up, driving forward and rebuilding, and doing those extra things that mark us out as the outstanding or aspiring outstanding providers.  Let your butterfly emerge from its chrysalis!

About Stow Healthcare

Stow Healthcare is a multiple national care award provider based in East Anglia.  It acquires homes with the most difficult history and poorest rating, and drives them forward to CQC ‘outstanding’ rated homes.

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