Covid-19 has been a struggle for many professions but care homes have faced exceptional challenges over the last 14 months.
From navigating the initial lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) at the start of the first lockdown to battling through mixed messages and changing guidelines, a job at the top of a care organisation is not for the faint-hearted during a pandemic.
Last year, one in five UK health professionals said Covid-19 had made them more likely to leave the profession, according to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research.
Thankfully it has not put off everybody.
Sue Cawthray, chief executive of care provider Harrogate Neighbours, a not-for-profit organisation that owns and operates a residential care home, Heath Lodge, and an extra care housing scheme, The Cuttings, as well as providing home care and a hot meal delivery service to hundreds of people in the Harrogate area, has remained a stalwart throughout.
The 64-year-old, who describes herself as ‘positive, outgoing and caring – sometimes a bit too much’, says: “In the 28 years I’ve worked in health and social care, I’ve never worked as hard or been as challenged.
“But, for us as an organisation, it has made us stronger. We’ve been innovative and creative about how we’ve delivered our services and we’ve worked really well as a team and learned a lot.”
Mrs Cawthray says she’s an ‘ideas person’. From investing £7.5m in building new extra care housing a few years ago to creating afternoon tea boxes for residents during the pandemic, she is always looking for new ways to improve life for her clients.
“When I say I’ve got an idea, my senior management team say: ‘Oh god, don’t make eye contact with Sue’, she jokes.
She adds: “I like that we don’t just stand still. We can do more and we have the ability to do more because of the team we have.” Harrogate Neighbours was set up in the 1970s to provide care and support to those in need in care homes.
Over the years the way people access health and social care has changed and now there is more emphasis on helping people to live independently in their own homes.
Today, the £2.4m turnover business employs 100 staff and also has a 75-strong army of volunteers who help to deliver meals in the community. It supports about 300 people on a daily basis. Most of its clients are funded by North Yorkshire County Council or Harrogate Council.
When Mrs Cawthray took over in 2005, it had a turnover of £850,000 and she set about overhauling and growing the organisation.
Her biggest idea was to build The Cuttings, which provides independent living with 24-hour support. It was an eight-year project which finally opened in 2018.
Harrogate Neighbours’ food delivery service, Harrogate and Ripon Food Angels, which was founded in 2012 and last year won a Queen’s Award for voluntary service, is the focus of the organisation’s current growth.
The service grew by 50 per cent – providing between 150 and 200 extra meals a day – during the height of the first lockdown last year. At one point it was also making three meals a day for the homeless.
Before Covid, the service only provided lunches for its clients but following the homeless initiative, it added tea to its list of services and also launched a traditional afternoon tea package plus boxes of macaroons to diversify its income further.
It is expanding its food delivery further afield into Boroughbridge, Hampsthwaite and Pateley Bridge.
Looking ahead, Mrs Cawthray plans to step up the organisation’s links with school and businesses.
Mrs Cawthray’s role as the national chair for the National Association of Care Catering (NACC) meant she became a go-to person for advice on nutrition for older people who have had Covid. “I’ve been asked a lot how we’re ensure people are well fed and about the importance of nutrition for people who have had Covid,” she says.
Early on in the pandemic, Mrs Cawthray took a stand that she wouldn’t accept anybody who had been in hospital overnight back into the residential sites without a negative coronavirus test result.
However, last November there was an outbreak of Covid in the care home, leading to 11 deaths, when a resident caught Covid after attending an outpatient appointment. “That was really tricky,” she says.
“The stance was that anybody who stayed in hospital couldn’t come back without a negative test result. If someone went into hospital as a day patient, we followed all the protocols we could.”
When it comes to the national discussions about what should and shouldn’t have been done during the pandemic, Mrs Cawthray is keen not to feed the ‘blame culture’.
“We have to use our strengths and our time and energy now to get us out of lockdown and make sure we don’t end up in the situation we were in, in March 2020 again,” she says.
Born in Essex, Mrs Cawthray has had a diverse career which has seen her working in the BBC’s press and publicity department in London where she met then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
She later moved to Bournemouth to work for the local council where she was involved in the building of the Bournemouth International Centre.
Mrs Cawthray moved up to Leeds in 1984 during a career break in which she had her four children. She says she ‘fell’ into the care profession after looking for something to do and started fundraising for charity care home Donisthorpe Hall, in North Leeds, working her way up the organisation.
At the same time she became involved in the NACC and was invited by its ambassador the Duchess of Cornwall to tea at Clarence House. “That’s probably the most important thing that’s happening to me in the whole of my career,” she says. “It was just incredible,”
Now at the age of 64 she still has no plans to retire. “I’m not going anywhere,” she says. “I’ve got plenty of energy and still love what I do.”
Title: Chief executive of Harrogate Neighbours
Date of birth: November 11, 1956
Education: Greensward Comprehensive School in Essex; foundation degree in leadership and management at Teesside University
First job: Production secretary at the BBC in London
Favourite holiday destination: Spain, particularly the Costa del Sol
Favourite film: Pretty Woman
Favourite song: Next Time, by Cliff Richard
Last book read: Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, by Deborah Feldman
Most proud of: My children and my grandchildren and what they have achieved
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