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Interview: Ann Gilbert, founder, Christian Care Trust

12 June 2012

‘No wonder care is so poor when people are only paid a pittance’

We live in a tick-box society. Too many large organisations are taking over the care of the elderly for profit. There’s lack of empathy, lack of proper training, poor wages. There are too many pressures on managers to fill in reports, and keep policies and procedures in order, while the staff are not committed.

Grace House [a residential care home in Finchley] was a vision from God. I founded the Christian Care Trust charity in 1997, after a per­sistent voice told me day after day that that was what I had to do. Quite an impossible task, I thought, be­cause I was reaching retirement age, and I had very little or no collateral.

I kept asking God if he was serious, and to show me a way of doing it. In the end, I put it to the test by speaking to the first person I saw as I left my apartment. She was over­whelmed by the idea. So I put the wheels in motion, and set up a charity with the help of some friends.

It seemed that everyone I made appointments with at that time were Christians — even the bank manager, a wonderful man called Chris Clarke, who immediately understood why I wanted to set up something different from the norm.

The moment at which I was really sure this was from God was when an elderly lady instructed her solicitor to give the charity a cheque for £150,000. This went as a deposit on our first house, also Grace House. Grace Pegrum insisted she did not want the house named after her; so we named it after the grace of God.

We offer care in a Christian family environment, where people feel valued and loved, where people can read their Bible, where prayer is part of the day: a house where Jesus is at the centre.

We offer domiciliary care, too — helping people in their own homes, personal care, cleaning, usually for elderly people. And if a family is concerned about someone living alone, they can come here for the day.

It will grow. I want it to grow. My vision was of this happening round every church in every town. That hasn’t happened yet, but we’re ex­panding into caring for people with learning difficulties. Younger people also need good Christian care. They normally live in a one-bed flat with a carer who takes them out once a day. God put this on my mind two years ago, and we’re looking for places at the moment, though it’s not easy.

Local authorities think that, be­cause I’m a Christian, I’m a bit of a do-gooder, who thinks she can put the world to rights. I just wish they would come and see the difference we can make to people.

There are so many huge care organisations bemoaning the fact that the minimum wage is going to go up to £6.19. No wonder care is so poor when people are only paid a pittance. I don’t know how it will ever improve. We don’t pay huge salaries either, but it’s more than the minimum wage. We tend to start them off on £6.50, and, as they go through their NVQ levels, increase their salaries. We pay for their train­ing and CRBs.

I’m the only volunteer. I don’t take a salary, but the trust makes a profit; so when I retire, we will be able to af­ford a manager. The trustees give their time, and we have an ac­countant, two GPs, a solicitor. They are always willing to help.

English people don’t want to do this kind of work — they want to go to university. Most of my staff are foreign workers: they’re brilliant. They have to do a proper job; other­wise we don’t employ them. They have to interact with the residents: they have to engage with them, take them out for walks, show them photo­graphs. They have to be able to speak English: many care homes have people whose English is very poor.

The ratio of staff to residents is far higher at Grace House than the norm. If we make a surplus, we plough it back in. Our next step is to create a bursary fund for people less well off, who cannot afford good care.

No one day is the same. I sit at my desk in the morning and, before I know it, the day is coming to an end; but I try at least to read a Bible verse and daily reading to the residents. I’ve just overseen the building of an extension, and the installation of a lift and a ramp into the garden. This project was so overspent, because of unseen defects, that collectively we prayed in an extra £100,000.

We have lively discussions on theo­logy, evolution, and psychology. We have a weekly Bible study for clients and the staff who wish to join us, and a beautiful informal service once a month.

There should be more supervision in care homes: managers being on the shop floor more, instead of being office-based. Employing an extra staff member to ease the load would help. People blame the CQC [Care Quality Commission] for lack of inspections, but surely we all know how we should treat vulnerable people.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to money. Care is already expensive, and making it better will cost a lot more money. Unless com­panies work for less profit, I don’t think it will happen any time soon.

I left Yorkshire in 1981, when my marriage ended, and moved to Lon­don and took a job with the Jewish Blind Society. This was my first experience of care, and it was a very good one. Then I worked in private care in Finchley, and was shocked at the difference. It seemed to be all about cutting corners and saving money, to the detriment of the clients.

I couldn’t work in such surround­ings; so I worked in an office for several years but the work did not fulfil me. It was just a job.

I think God prepared me for this from as young as four or five years old. I had an uncle who was an epileptic, who lived with us. He could go into a fit at any time; so I was used to seeing my granny help him. I would help her: she would hold him, and I would undo his top button, so he could get his breath better. She called me her little helper. I think that taught me empathy for people less able than myself.

My family lived in slums in Hull. They were very proud, caring, loving people; very poor, but they adopted me as a baby. I am the eldest of three girls. I felt very loved and cherished as I grew up. It seemed as if I did not want for anything — we were all con­tent with our lot.

My grandmother brought lots of babies into the world, and prepared as many people for death. My mother had to work in the ammunition factory; so my grandmother became my main carer, and I had a great affection for her. She was one of the most respected people in the area. I think it was all the shillings she earned from being the local “mid­wife” that gave us a better standard of living than most.

As I look back on my life now, I realise what a struggle it was for my parents, and it was the resource­fulness of my granny that meant I didn’t go hungry, as many of our neighbours did. She taught me many things that I think are missing today: manners, respect, and caring for others.

I am a widow now, but I have two most wonderful sons and their families; seven grandchildren, and three great grandchildren.

I wanted to be able to sing and dance like Doris Day, Betty Grable, or Lana Turner. We all went to the cinema at least once a week, and watched all those wonderful old musicals. We used to re-enact them in the street, tap-dancing, singing, swinging around lamp posts. And I longed to be married and to have a house with fitted carpets.

The most important choice I’ve made was to give my life to Christ.

I regret my first marriage breaking down after 21 years, but I realise that I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now if that hadn’t happened. I am very content with my life now.

I do so admire David Hockney for bringing the Yorkshire countryside to London, and, even though he is 74, using an iPad to paint it. I would like to do that. Very late in life, I started to do watercolour painting, and to go round art exhibitions.

I am not an avid reader, but recently I read Sophie’s World. A book that I remember enjoying very much was Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place.

I remember a sermon by John Stott, when he said we could learn a lot from birds. He said if human beings followed the way birds conduct them­selves, there wouldn’t be any trouble in the world.

My favourite part of the Bible is John 3.16, and the prayer for the Ephesians.

I am a late bird, and I love the late-night shipping forecast on Radio 4, and the signature tune “Sailing By”. That reminds me of my child­hood.

And I love the sea. We used to cycle there in my childhood. That’s what I miss most, though it was the North sea, the coldest, dreariest sea in the world. I do go down to Hastings frequently now. I feel at home by the sea. No — I can’t think of retiring.

People who do not pay attention to the vulnerable people we have in the world make me angry.

I’m happiest when I’m just relaxing at home, talking to someone about Jesus, or being with my family.

I pray for health, strength, and patience to continue my work. And for all my mission friends who travel the world taking the good news.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with a theologian, maybe, or some­one experienced in evolution, to explain how much we have de­veloped over the last 2000 years.

Ann Gilbert was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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