Last Thursday the BBC released a video of 83-year-old Muriel Price, sobbing pitiful protests to an empty house as she lay stranded in her bed, her agency carer having failed to turn up to work. Her quiet desperation painted a shameful picture of how little our society values the elderly and vulnerable.
I found it hard to watch Muriel's video, but wasn't remotely surprised by the content. Just as with other recent care scandals in the UK, the pattern of failure and neglect was all too familiar to me.
I stumbled into agency care work as a 19-year-old looking for employment that required neither qualifications nor experience. After two days of basic food hygiene and health and safety training I was sent to out support young adults with learning difficulties in day centres and residential homes for £5 an hour. I was utterly unprepared for the demanding work. Some of my clients had extreme behavioural difficulties; no one had told me what I should do when a charge of the same body mass as me bit an old woman in a shopping centre for example, or kicked children in a playground.
There was also little support; often I'd be left bathing, changing and moving clients alone, when for safety reasons these should have been two-person jobs. This was backbreaking work for me, and often humiliating for the person being cared for. Then there would be the times at the end of an exhausting 7am - 3pm shift when my manager would call and inform me he hadn't managed to find cover for the afternoon and I'd have to do a 'double' sixteen hour day.
Although most of my colleagues were diligent and genuinely caring, I regularly witnessed malpractice. In one care home, waking night staff would tie emergency alarm cords out of reach of disabled residents, leaving them crying impotently for help in the night as the staff would catch up on sleep. I saw teenagers with learning difficulties locking in rooms for hours to 'cool down', by staff who'd had no training to deal with their complex needs.
Then there was the casual neglect. I'd regularly come on shift to find that an incontinent client had not been changed in the preceding eight hours, or incapacitated clients who should have been up, washed and dressed had instead been left in bed while their carers watched TV.
To my great shame as an awkward 19 year old I never spoke up or reported wrongdoing. I did the best I could and kept my head down. I also saw the futility of complaining about individuals; this wasn't about a few bad eggs, it was a systematic problem. We were all undertrained, underpaid and overstressed. I knew that colleagues who were negligent were also exhausted by erratic shift patterns, long commutes between different jobs and the usual stresses of trying to feed their families below the poverty line.
As frontline workers, we were also in the firing line for the failings of more senior staff; either our own managers or thinly spread social-workers. If something did go wrong or if our company lost contracts we knew that as agency workers we could be sacked at a moments notice.
The net result of all this was a sense that our work was unimportant. To many, care work was just another insecure stop on a merry-go-round of crap, poorly paid jobs and occasional spells on the dole.
It shouldn't be like this.
Caring isn't just another job; it is a vital component of a civilised society. The justifiable public outrage at widespread substandard care is testament to this. And despite all the stress, the antisocial hours, the lack of training or support and the rubbish pay, in many ways I loved my job. I got a buzz from enabling people to lead fuller lives than their circumstances would otherwise allow. At times the work could be genuinely rewarding and even fun. I'd go home drained, but feeling far more fulfilled than I had in the mind numbing call centre job I had paid my rent with up till then. Caring should be a vocation, but the current framework denies workers the support and security to make this possible.
Norman Lamb MP, Minister for Care and Support, has recently called for recommendations on how to reform the care system, stating the need for sweeping change. This is encouraging, but really the recipe for reform is very simple and is already working in other countries.
A few years ago I met a Swedish woman who had recently qualified as a care worker after two years of formal training. She was on a decent salary and was employed directly by the state on a permanent contract. She also had opportunities for further training and education to develop her career in the sector. She felt valued and supported and consequently took her job very seriously.
In Sweden, caring is a profession. In the UK it's a dead end.
The neglect experienced by Muriel Price was not inflicted by one lazy carer; it is systemic neglect which implicates our priorities as a society. If we take the care of our most vulnerable seriously we need to invest in carers, giving them the tools and support to do their job properly and pay which reflects the demands of their vital work.