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Engage with your community
and reap the rewards

In the final article of the series from My Home Life, on keeping your focus on quality when money is tight, Tom Owen and Jess Watson look outside the care home to consider how strengthening links with local people and community groups can improve your business outcomes.

The link between good business and community engagement

Realistically, when it’s busy, reaching out to the community can slide down the ‘to do’ list. However, we would argue that it is well worth spending time improving community links because of the very practical benefits that it can deliver to quality of life in the home and business outcomes. Involvement from community groups and volunteers is normal in hospitals and hospices – so why should a care home be any different?

A care home isolated from its local community has fewer opportunities to demonstrate the value of its work while those that make concerted efforts to reach out to the community are more likely to attract potential customers. Word of mouth is a huge marketing tool; if you are well known to the church, school and wider community – chances are you’ll be recommended to those looking for a care home.

There is no doubt that the public will feel more assured by care homes that are well integrated into the wider community. It may indicate to them that the home has an open and transparent culture and, therefore, has nothing to hide. As well as improving the atmosphere, if families or potential residents notice volunteers, groups and other visitors are regularly popping in, it may offer reassurance to them that there are supporters of the home helping to make it even better.

Aside from the business-focused benefits, the importance of community contact for your residents cannot be understated.

Some managers, who support volunteers to contribute to the home, have described a knock-on effect for staff. In some way, it has helped staff to be less institutional and task-focused; it has helped them to have a new outlook on their work, reconnecting with their role and purpose in supporting very frail citizens. Managers who were originally nervous about how staff would respond to volunteers told us it had been a great experience. This was especially true when volunteers were able to pick up conversations with residents when the staff lacked the time to spend with them. With staffing levels as limited as they are at the moment, welcoming in the community can be a real asset to delivering quality care.

If you have connections with young people, such as partnerships with local schools, you could be showing the next generation what caring is really like – potentially sparking their interest in working in your care home. Many care homes have created opportunities which fit into structured placements for young people, like Duke of Edinburgh Awards or work experience.

Of course, aside from the business-focused benefits, the importance of community contact for your residents cannot be understated. This is beautifully demonstrated by a lady living in an Essex care home who welcomed her ‘befriender’ volunteer by saying, ‘Oh it’s so nice to see someone who hasn’t seen me naked!’. We can’t expect one busy group of people to be able to fulfil all our residents’ individual needs; we need to look outside of the care home for more support from our neighbours.

Why isn’t it happening?

If connecting care homes with the community is so overwhelmingly positive and the benefits are so clear, why aren’t all care homes a hive of community activity? Whilst we know a great many care homes are working hard to bring in volunteers and community groups, we also hear of some common barriers to building these relationships.

  1. Both sides are unsure of a ‘way in’. Sometimes, it can feel hard to ask local people and groups to get involved in the home and, similarly, sometimes the community are not sure whether they are allowed to invite themselves in.
  2. Sheer workload. Simply the amount that care homes have to do on a day-to-day basis can impact on the homes’ ability to encourage the community to come in, or to support those volunteers to play a meaningful role.
  3. Some care homes have risk-averse cultures. This can make them wary of inviting outsiders in. This sector-wide fear culture stems from a desire to protect the people being cared for, but the tendency to say ‘no’ to new things because of the potential risks can lead to care homes being isolated from their communities.
  4. People find care homes difficult places to be in. Typically, the general public doesn’t fully understand, or struggles with, seeing extreme frailty and people in the later stages of dementia. Many find the realities overwhelming, difficult to respond to, and don’t have the knowledge or training to know how to communicate with, or support, these people.

What works?

Care homes have shared examples that have worked for them to overcome these challenges.

  • Have one person taking the lead in making community contacts and supporting volunteers. Ideally, we want all staff to take a responsibility for supporting stronger connections with the community and potential volunteers. However, if this isn’t effective, it’s worth ensuring that there is one point of contact for anyone who gets in touch wanting to contribute. Care homes report it is better if this isn’t the manager as they are just too busy. Instead, they might be an activities coordinator, or another dedicated member of the team. Some homes have a member of the care team supporting volunteers with a slightly different job description and a minor salary increase. Though, of course, it will vary depending on your team. It is still vital that the manager supports engaging with the community and models a welcoming approach. For newcomers to feel welcome, everyone needs to know who they are, their role, and see that they are part of the care home ‘team’.
  • Many managers have told us they felt really anxious about opening their doors, for fear that their residents are kept safe. However, their biggest incentive was acknowledging that quality of life for their residents was simply not possible without looking outside the care home for support. When they were able to weigh these positives with their concerns, they felt confident in welcoming the community into the home.
  • New visitors to care homes will feel better able to cope if they’re supported to understand the context of the home and what they may encounter there. You can start this process by inviting people to look around before they commit to a volunteering role. Some homes have asked potential volunteers to attend relevant parts of staff inductions. Again, the whole team can help by being available to answer questions from the newcomer. These questions could range from ‘How do I get in the door?!’ up to ‘Who do I talk to when I’m worried about someone?’.

How to get started

Begin by asking residents about their desires and interests. Some managers in Essex and Kent that worked with My Home Life found that asking residents ‘what are your simple pleasures?’ seemed to provoke a positive response. You may also want to ask them about what they used to do when they lived in the community. What were the places and people that were important to them? And then open up a space for residents to consider what connections with the wider community they would benefit from and what support they want from the care home to make this happen.

It may also be helpful to survey staff on their pursuits outside of work and map these to residents’ interests, asking staff to bring their connections into the care home.

Think about where there may be ‘win-wins’ for both the community and the residents. Don’t forget that within the home you have a lot to offer, such as your residents’ expertise – their years of experience, skills and ideas could be a huge resource for outside groups. Think about targeting people who might be looking for opportunities to connect with the home.

Visits from local churches or visitors from a Christmas party or Care Home Open Day are great community connections to build on. One of the quickest and easiest ways to build your engagement is to contact the people you already know, send them a ‘thank you’ for their past contribution to the care home community, and ask them ‘how can we do more together?’. The list of possibilities can grow very quickly, so keep coming back to your residents’ interests and use that to shape your plans.

Reach out and ask for help

Earlier in this series, we talked about positive organisational culture and strong leadership being a foundation for community engagement. Here we see this in action. The key to building lasting relationships with the community is a welcoming and open approach, modelled by care home leadership and taken up by the whole team.

It is credit to the care home sector that so many care homes are coming up with new approaches to strengthen links with the community. Let’s not underestimate the work involved but also the huge pay-off in the long-term. Care homes need to be cherished by their communities for the vital role that they play, it is up to the sector to reach out and ask for help.

Helpful Resources
www.carehomeconnections.wordpress.com contains helpful advice and resources on bringing the community into your care home. There’s a complete toolkit on how to recruit, train and manage volunteers in care settings from the Voluntary Organisations Disability Group and the National Care Forum (Search ‘VODG NCF Volunteer management’). CMM subscribers can also access an article on this at www.caremanagementmatters.co.uk/feature/managing-volunteers The website of the ‘Volunteering in Care Homes’ project being run by The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has further resources and case studies (Search ‘NCVO Volunteering in Care Homes’). My Home Life www.myhomelife.org.uk

Tom Owen is Co-Director and Jess Watson is Social Action Lead at My Home Life England, based at City University London. Email: mhl@city.ac.uk Twitter: @MyHomeLifeUK

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