Housing providers should take a person-centered approach to working with older service users, according to new research. Caroline Thorpe finds out why
Housing staff should be more PC. At least that’s according to a study launched in the House of Lords last month.
But don’t fret about saying the wrong thing or grumble about political correctness gone mad. The £33,000 research on improving housing services for vulnerable older people, commissioned by the charitable arm of Orbit Housing Group, is talking about the other kind of PC - person-centred working.
In 2010 the Orbit Charitable Trust decided to discover how to make housing for the UK’s ageing population ‘fit for the future’, says chair David Hucker. Since official Office for National Statistics projections show almost one in four people (23 per cent) will be 65 or older by 2035, including more than 3.5 million over-85-year-olds, the charity reckoned providers could use help shaping up.
It asked researchers from Riseborough Research and Consultancy Associates to unearth how housing and older people’s organisations could offer services that truly match older people’s needs, especially those of vulnerable people. First the team studied existing good practice from housing and beyond; then they took the best bits and tested them out in two organisations - 11,000-home Accord Housing Group and Age UK Newcastle, which provides housing support but doesn’t own any homes. The two organisations already had a well developed way of working from which OCT ‘could learn valuable lessons’, Mr Hucker explains.
The aim was to produce a step-by-step guide to providing homes and services that older people actually want and need. The trials both reveal that organisations serious about meeting the demographic challenge are also serious about becoming PC. So what exactly is people-centred working, and how do you get it right?
‘The principle of people-centred working is to focus on the things people can do, rather than the things they can’t,’ explains lead researcher Moyra Riseborough. ‘If organisations don’t do this, more and more people will become dependent on them.’ Her team’s report states that a person-centred organisation thinks and works according to specific ‘values’.
Sounds familiar? The personalisation agenda started by the last Labour government and pursued by the coalition since has nudged the housing sector this way for a while. Despite this, says Sarah Davis, senior policy officer at the Chartered Institute of Housing, many landlords are ‘still struggling’ to abandon more traditional working practices.
What is new is that OCT’s two demonstration projects have ‘successfully tested the tools and methods to introduce person-centred working that really work’, says Ms Riseborough. Many are surprisingly straightforward. ‘A really basic one is when people are advising older people, in particular people in distress… it is quite common to try to be helpful and take over, maybe saying, “I’ll do this for you”.
‘That’s not very person-centred as it can take control away from the older person. One alternative is to say, “there are various options that we can go through and then you can choose”.’ She adds: ‘It’s going to be different for every person. If you always take control away… people never have the option to learn. The place to start is treating people like adults.’
‘The Why? Box’, an innovation midlands-based Accord introduced following the study, is certainly simple. ‘The norm is the suggestions box for complaints, comments etc. But people have questions about why we do things a certain way too,’ explains Kim Yates, acting assistant director
of Accord Care and Support, who joined the project ‘to get more tools in our toolkit’.
‘It doesn’t matter if you’re staff, service-user, visitor or volunteer,’ she says - anyone can use the Why? boxes now installed in the organisation’s 16 extra-care and older people’s residential schemes.
Respond to requests
When asked why cooked breakfasts were restricted to a 90-minute slot, Accord changed things so that ‘if someone wants [one] at silly o’clock they can have it’.
Meanwhile, Age UK Newcastle is using the research findings to implement people-centred working across its 350-strong workforce, for whom providing housing advice is a ‘large chunk’ of the job, says chief executive Lynn Johnson. ‘We concluded that there was the potential to take that learning and replicate it,’ she explains.
Inevitably there are challenges. Several landlords have told Ms Riseborough, ‘Yes that’s interesting, but it’s very hard for us to do; there’s a real shortfall in money and it’s difficult to maintain the services we’ve got.’
‘That’s a genuine concern, but there are very small things you can do at no cost,’ she says, using turning an office computer screen around to share what’s on it with the older person as an example.
Another difficulty is that some people struggle to transform the way they work and think. ‘I’ve spent an awful lot of time engaging with staff across the organisation about why we need to change,’ admits Ms Johnson. ‘It’s been challenging, scary - and exciting.’
And yet if OCT’s study proves anything, it’s that person-centred working is worth it. Accord extra-care resident and research participant Charlie, 84, reports: ‘When I was ill recently staff supported me very well. They made me feel safe and comfortable and I was happy they were on duty. In future when I do need services I hope staff support me as they did that day.’ How very PC.
Person-centered working means…
- Putting the person at the centre -services are designed to fit her/him
- Treating people as individuals
- Ensuring people have choice and control over services
- Emphasising the relationship between service users and practitioners
- Listening to and acting on feedback
- Providing accurate, easily accessible information
- Being flexible
- Focusing on what service users can rather than cannot do
Source: Orbit Charitable Trust