Working under cover in an elderly care home

Alex worked at The Old Deanery helping residents, while also secretly filming
Image caption Alex worked at The Old Deanery helping residents, while also secretly filming

One staff member has been sacked and seven others suspended from an Essex care home following a Panorama investigation into poor care. This is the undercover reporter's account.

Lying on his bed, completely reliant on care workers for help, a resident tells me he went to the toilet an hour ago and needed to be cleaned up.

In that hour, two other so-called care workers had been to this man and left without helping, leaving him to lie in his own mess.

Sadly, this was not an isolated incident during my time working as a care assistant at the Old Deanery, a 93-bed residential home in Braintree, Essex.

A little over a year before, 11 whistle-blowers complained about pay, staffing and poor care in a dispute with the home's then owner.

They had witnessed people left in their own mess for hours, call bells ignored and residents pulled about, mocked and shouted at. It should have been a clear marker that things needed to change.

My job was to find out whether things had changed, but I quickly found my experiences were hauntingly similar.

As well as the toilet incidents, I saw others who tried to summon help being ignored and a challenging resident mocked, bullied and on one occasion slapped.

Daily dilemmas

I've never worked in care before, and now I was providing immensely personal care to strangers for just over £7 an hour - strangers who were very frail, in some cases very ill and in other cases often very confused.

The Old Deanery put me through a mandatory three-day training course run by their in-house trainer. The BBC provided further training with another expert to make sure I was as fully prepared as possible.

Image caption Undercover reporter Alex Lee worked 36 shifts at the Old Deanery in Essex

When I did start the job, it felt chaotic and the guidance I received was limited. Every day I faced dilemmas of who I should attend to first and whether I had personally done enough for the residents.

Over the 36 shifts I wore cameras I lost count of the times the call alarm - the lifeline with which they summon help and assistance - sounded for a significant amount of time for a number of residents.

But I had started to see these lifelines unplugged. When I pointed this out to one resident, she told me that "certain nurses hated" her.

I cannot be sure who pulled the call bell out but it certainly left this woman with the feeling that some of those charged with caring for her in a place she now calls "home," did not care for her at all.

One of more than 12,000 residential care homes in England, providing residential care to our increasingly ageing population, the Old Deanery is a large home where elderly residents are meant to be cared for in a safe and understanding environment.

Brochures for the home, with its manicured gardens, hairdressers and cinema room, boast that "care is at the heart of everything we do" - and I did see good care.

But the reality for some seems to be something different.


Joan Maddison was one of those residents. She has early-stage dementia and was paralysed by a severe stroke in her 50s. She was considered by some care workers to be difficult and aggressive, but over 28 mornings the cameras captured Joan often being mocked, goaded and treated spitefully by the very people who were supposed to be looking after her.

While I was working at the Old Deanery, the national regulator, the Care Quality Commission, inspected. The CQC gave it a clean bill of health for the first time in 18 months.

Image caption Panorama secret filming showed The Old Deanery resident Joan Maddison being slapped

But just 11 days later, it was care assistant Anita's turn to get Joan Maddison ready. Anita had been named by whistle-blowers in their complaints as having a bad attitude towards residents. She was later promoted to relief senior care assistant.

She becomes increasingly exasperated with Joan as she and another care worker try to get her up. It is their job to wash and dress Joan, someone who needs help at every level with these basic tasks. The situation begins to escalate and Anita loses her temper - she slaps Joan.

Of course it was not all bad care. I worked with many good care workers who were trying their best under difficult circumstances.

It's not an easy job, but it can be incredibly rewarding, something that has taken me completely by surprise. It was a privilege to spend time with residents.

Anglia Retirement Homes, the company that runs the home, apologised unreservedly and said the incidents were "not reflective of the high standards of care which we expect and demand from all of our team".

Panorama: Behind Closed Doors: Elderly Care Exposed on BBC One on Wednesday 30 April at 21.00 BST and then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer.

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