A social worker has achieved a heartfelt 20 year ambition by turning a failing residential home into an award-winning care home for elderly people with dementia – complete with its own mini zoo.
The last entry Liz Dyson, 60, made in her social work training record in 1993 was a sentence stating that, one day, she wanted to manage a residential home for elderly people where she, herself, would be happy to live her final years.
Two decades later, she has more than achieved her ambition by joining forces with daughter Jane Dyson, 33, an A&E nurse, to buy a ramshackle and badly run residential home in the small Shropshire village of Kynnersley, in Shropshire, and creating something special.
Liz admits her decision to buy Deansfield, a 15-bed home in what was once the vicarage right next to the picturesque village church, was a decision that came straight from the heart, not from a rational business head.
Only afterwards, did she discover the true extent of the challenges facing the care home, and its residents.
The Care Quality Commission had stated it had a “Major Concern” about Deansfield. This is a formal notification. The CQC clearly considered something was not at all right about the standard of care there.
The local council’s environmental health services had served a number of improvement notices on its kitchens, due to infestation and infection control concerns. A health and safety audit identified that there were no adequate emergency exit, in the event of a fire.
It was a calamitous situation that could have defeated lesser people. Instead, Liz and Jane set to work to put right the wrongs.
They have made many improvements, some that set best standards in care, some that have inspired the local community, and some that are downright quirky.
The changes have transformed the home and the care it provides. At the start, the home was two-thirds full. Now it has waiting list.
And three years after Liz and Jane bought Deansfield, Shropshire Partners in Care, a not-for-profit organisation that represents private care providers, has named it Care Business of the Year 2014, below 50 employees.
Along the way, they have invested more than £500,000 in their “dream care home”, with Liz selling her own home to contribute towards the amount required.
Liz started her career caring for others as a home help, in 1983, travelling around to her clients on her motorbike. After a number of years, her talent and dedication was rewarded by council bosses who offered to sponsor her to train as a social worker.
Liz completed her training as a mental health social worker in 1993, then lived and worked in Dudley, in the Black Country until August 2011, when she bought Deansfield.
She said: “It was always something I wanted to do. I have always had an affiliation with elderly people. I think they’re brilliant.
“When I started my social work training I had to place elderly clients in some pretty dire accommodation. It broke my heart to do it. In my self-analysis report when I finished training, the last thing I wrote was that, one day, I wanted to manage a care home that I would be proud of.
“Since then, I’d worked for 20 years as a social worker. I realised I had to do something fast about my ambition or it wouldn’t happen.
“When I saw Deansfield, I fell in love with it, and when I got the chance to buy it, I had to take it. It was very much a decision that came from the heart, not the head. Anyone with business sense would have told me to run a mile.
“But I was determined to give it a go. Thankfully, my daughter Jane, could see the potential as well. It’s been a team effort all along. Our bank manager has also been very understanding.”
One of the first tasks was to sort out major failings with the building. A new steel kitchen was installed, and a balcony built at the rear of the building, providing an emergency exit. Other idiosyncrasies, such as there being two toilets in one bathroom, were put right, and all the furniture replaced.
With two and a half acres of grounds, Liz and Jane realised they would have their hands full just keeping the vegetation under control. Their solution was inspired: they created a mini zoo.
Deansfield now has three alpacas, three goats, guinea pigs, chickens, ducks – and a dog. The alpacas and goats help to keep the grass under control. But more importantly, the animals have a therapeutic benefit for residents.
Liz said: “The animals come into the home. We put them on leads and the residents pet them. Pets have a recognised therapeutic effect on people with dementia. They absolutely love them. There are also bird feeding tables outside every window. It’s an important part of our approach to care.”
Perhaps, though, it is the standard of care that has changed most. Liz has put in place a comprehensive training programme for her and Jane, and the 10 staff, just two of whom worked in the home under the previous owners.
Among the courses undertaken has been adult abuse training, for which the home also won a SPIC award in 2012. Deansfield is one of 28 care homes in Shropshire that have completed a dementia leadership training programme at Worcester University, thanks to SPIC funding.
An idea Liz had, as part of the training, to create a ‘virtual environment’ for residents, won a £2,000 prize to put it into practice. It involves evocative themed images being projected onto a wall, supported by related sounds.
Virtual environments created so far include ‘Woodland’, ‘Italy’ and ‘The Seaside’. The immersive environment is very much enjoyed by the residents. It helps them recall happy memories, reminding them of a lifetime’s pleasures.
Deansfield is now among the first care homes in Shropshire working towards introducing the Gold Standard Framework, a new national standard for caring for people nearing the end of their lives.
Another important success has been developing links with the local community. In the past, Deansfield stood rather aloof from residents in Kynnersley. That has now very much changed.
Residents attend the church and other community events. A retired naval chef, who lives in the village, cooks at the home one day a week. Liz and Jane also host an annual summer camp in the home’s grounds, for relatives of residents, which villagers also take part in.
One of Liz’s latest initiatives is to provide some land for the Telford and Wrekin Inclusive Gardening Service (TWIGS), so local people with disabilities have a place to learn skills that allow them to enjoy tending their own gardens.
Creating a comfortable yet stimulating place to live, where residents are treated with respect, as individuals, is central to life at Deansfield.
Every effort is made to give residents special experiences. One of the carers said she knew a member of the Military Wives Choir, who then visited the home to give a concert last Christmas. No fuss was made. It was just something done for residents and relatives.
Every birthday is celebrated with a big party. One of the next ones, in June, is in fact a double celebration, with a party for a gentleman who is 90 and a lady who is 100-years-old.
Liz and Jane now want to improve Deansfield still further, and expand their service for people with dementia. There are plans to add four more bedrooms and an orangery. And, who knows, the zoo might even get some more animals?
All this has been done while Liz has continued to work one night a week – a night that often lasts 16 hours – as an emergency mental health worker back in Dudley. She wants to keep her hand in, she said.
“I suppose I could have just retired gracefully, but I knew in my heart this was something I needed to do,” Liz says. “This has been a dream come true for me. It feels like I am fulfilling a true ambition. And there’s so much more I want to do.”