Former estate agent Angela Swift is pioneering a new approach to the homes many of us will spend our twilight years in. Sharon Dale report
The thought of ending our days in a care home fills most of us with dread thanks to recent exposes into abuse and the drab, depressing reality of what many regard as “old people farms”.
While most of us simply hope we will escape this fate, Angela Swift was spurred into action by a belief that she could do better.
“My father was in a home and it wasn’t a bad one but it was depressing,” she says.“I used to think ‘wouldn’t it be great if there was a coffee shop where we could go instead of sitting in a residents’ lounge with the TV on?’”
Although the former estate agent had absolutely no experience in the sector, she had people skills, design awareness, drive and lots of ideas, and they were enough to convince the bank to invest.
Silk Healthcare was launched from her spare bedroom and her first purpose-built care home, Reuben Manor, named after her father, opened in Yarm in 2009. It came with a coffee shop to rival Costa.
“We were the first care home with a coffee shop and it works just like I thought it would. Families come in and meet their loved ones here and for residents it can feel like a day out,” says Angela, who now has four care homes, a headquarters in Barnsley and a clutch of industry awards.
Her latest build is Belvedere Manor, in Colne, Lancashire, and it is her best yet. Inside, the 83 bed property looks and feels like a five star hotel. There’s a coffee shop, a hair and beauty salon and an internet room, where residents are given help with email and social media so they can keep in touch with family and friends. Angela picked that idea up from a Cunard cruise.
The Belvedere décor is fashionable and includes French-style cabinets and Emma Bridgewater wallpaper.
“The interior is important. I don’t want my care homes to look like institutions so I work with an interior designer and I’m always on the lookout for furniture and furnishings. I found the mosaic patio tables in M&S and the Emma Bridgewater wallpaper was in James Brindley in Harrogate. It’s all the sort of thing I have in my own home,” she says.
The interior design is also aimed at helping those with dementia. The main corridor in the dementia suite has a garden theme with a countryside mural, a potting bench, crates of apples, a carpet of fake grass and benches.
“I observe the residents a lot to see what they do and the dementia residents tend to stand in the corridors. So I thought ‘why not make them an interesting space with things to see and touch?’ ” says Angela, who has also created a Blackpool corridor complete with an organ from the resort’s pier, bunting and a huge mural with a 1950s photo of holiday makers on the beach.
Another area has dolls, prams and toy cats and dogs, which the dementia residents love to “adopt” and cuddle.
With sensory gratification in mind, she also put a water feature in the garden because “the residents love to watch it.”
Another major departure from the norm is to serve the main meal in the evening. “When I did my mystery shop of other care homes meal times were an obvious issue. The residents were lethargic after a big lunch and then found it hard to sleep at night. We serve a light lunch and have the main meal later,” she explains.
While many of her best ideas seem straightforward, many homes won’t use them. Most care providers have an eye on the square footage and squeezing in as many bedrooms as possible.
“The café takes up a lot of room and I insist on extra wide corridors because they feel more calm but to most homes space is money,” says Angela, whose latest venture is building assisted living apartments and bungalows for rent next to Belvedere Manor.
They are aimed at those who need help but aren’t ready for full-time care and there will be a glazed link into the care home, where they can access amenities. She is so convinced her rental model will work; she has applied for planning permission to build a care village in Middlesbrough, which will include a wheelchair-friendly shop.
“I got the idea for a shop when I was at a holiday resort. It won’t make a profit but having somewhere you go, chat and see a friendly face will improve quality of life,” says Angela, who continues to innovate while her competitors watch with interest.
**The care home sector is increasingly dominated by big companies that see potential in Britain’s ageing population. The nation’s over-65s now outnumber people under thre age of 16.
While Angela Swift continues to vie with them for building land, her ambition is to construct just five more facilities bringing her total to nine.
“That will give me a group I can still be heavily involved in,” she says. “The problems come when a company gets too big and you lose touch. I visit all the homes regularly and the policy I have is that if I’d be happy and proud to put my dad in them then I have got it right.”