Ed Balls worked in a care home but nothing prepared him for the struggles of ...

Ed Balls worked in a care home but nothing prepared him for the struggles of ...
Ed Balls worked in a care home but nothing prepared him for the struggles of ...

Ed Balls, one-time Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, is kneeling on the floor in a plastic pinny, washing an elderly care home resident's feet.

He does so with the level of gentle care and attention you'd accord to cleaning a priceless Ming dynasty vase.

He asks 94-year-old Phyllis if she likes the water hot — 'or, like Goldilocks, just right' — whether there are any products she prefers and, as he soaps her feet and legs with a flannel, if she is comfortable. 'Oh yes,' she says.

We're now accustomed to seeing Ed, who served in Gordon Brown's administration and was an MP until he lost his seat 2015, in a variety of guises.

Contestant on Strictly — his Gangnam Style dance with Katya Jones was a surprise sensation — and Celebrity Best Home Cook (he won earlier this year) are just two of his TV incarnations. But the 54-year-old's latest transformation has more pressing implications.

Ed Balls has swapped the red box for the white apron as he works in a care home for a fortnight to see the strains on Britain's care system

Ed Balls has swapped the red box for the white apron as he works in a care home for a fortnight to see the strains on Britain's care system

As Britain's social care system teeters perilously close to collapse — a quarter of the country's 17,600 care homes are reported to be facing bankruptcy, with the sector enduring unprecedented staff shortages — Ed has donned mask and apron to work at the sharp end.

For a two-part BBC Two documentary, he became a carer for a fortnight, joining staff at two of Saint Cecilia's Care Homes in Scarborough, to learn exactly what it is to administer personal care to residents who have complex and varied needs.

He changes incontinence pads and cleans up urine. He washes and shaves residents; he brushes hair. He gently cajoles the obdurate into eating. He encounters some with dementia who are resistant and aggressive. And above all he is humbled by the sheer dedication of the staff.

But perhaps his most significant admission is that — although his own mum Carolyn, 83, has vascular dementia and is herself in a care home in Norwich — he had not realised just how exacting care work is.

'The big revelation for me was that the work was much harder, much more skilled and more exhausting that I'd realised,' he tells me.

'I thought I was pretty informed but I didn't know how personal the care is and how much importance is placed on putting the resident at its centre.

'You have to understand that you are a visitor in their home and once you start thinking like that it changes everything: how they eat, dress, and if they need help with washing and continence, how that is done.

As part of his work, Ed had to care for residents like Phyllis (pictutred) in a Scarborough home

As part of his work, Ed had to care for residents like Phyllis (pictutred) in a Scarborough home

'There's a fine balance between respecting someone's humanity and keeping them clean.

'I imagined that things (like washing and feeding) were 'done to' residents, but the skill of the care worker is to make them happen without the resident ever losing their agency or self-respect.

'It's subtle and difficult to navigate the fine line between coercion and gentle persuasion.

'You might feed a toddler by putting the food on a spoon and pretending to be an aeroplane but you don't do that with an adult. I used to read my mum's care notes and think, 'How can it have taken her an hour to eat her lunch?' But now I know the act of eating must be the residents' decision.'

We see that dementia affects everyone differently: resident Frank can be physically aggressive.

'He gripped [carer] Alison so hard. He inflicted a lot of pain,' says Ed, who is charged with shaving and washing him.

'Outside the boxing ring, how many jobs require you to absorb pain?'

Meanwhile, Kathleen, who has vascular dementia and rarely speaks, is overcome by abject terror when she tries to walk downstairs. 'Having seen it with my mum I really understand the combination of strength and bewilderment dementia can bring.'

While Kathleen struggles, another resident, Charlie, needs to go to the loo. Ed arrives just too late and ends up swabbing the floor with a mop. It is the first of many such occasions.

Ed's own mother - Carolyn, 83, (pictured right) - has vascular dementia and he has said he did not realise how exacting care work is despite his mother's illness

Ed's own mother - Carolyn, 83, (pictured right) - has vascular dementia and he has said he did not realise how exacting care work is despite his mother's illness 

The documentary Ed is making is his latest TV turn since leaving politics. He is best remembered for his surprising performance of Gangnam Style on Strictly Come Dancing

The documentary Ed is making is his latest TV turn since leaving politics. He is best remembered for his surprising performance of Gangnam Style on Strictly Come Dancing

Charlie's wife Lorna also has dementia and lives at Saint Cecilia's with her husband. Her needs are different again. 'She thinks she's on holiday and a car is waiting outside to take her home.

'You don't contradict but you don't lie either. I'd say to her, 'Do you really want to go home? You've got such a lovely room upstairs'.'

Lorna is appeased, too, when Ed — deploying his Strictly skills — dances with her. We see, repeatedly, how proficient and patient carers are — yet they're typically paid just £9.30 an hour, little more than minimum wage.

Little wonder that in 2019, even before Covid, almost 500,000 workers left the care sector. And a dire national staff shortage will be compounded when a government directive preventing carers who have not been doubled jabbed from working is implemented in November.

It is expected up to 40,000 could be forced out of their job.

This month, a report by the Care Quality Commission revealed one in ten essential jobs in care homes is now vacant as former staff take up better paid work in supermarkets, retail and hospitality.

But Ed believes the problem of recruiting and retaining carers can only be fixed if they are valued — as well as paid — more.

Inside The Care Crisis With Ed Balls sees the former Chancellor take up work in Saint Cecilia's Nursing Home, Scarborough

Inside The Care Crisis With Ed Balls sees the former Chancellor take up work in Saint Cecilia's Nursing Home, Scarborough

He talks to carer Alison, who feels this acutely. 'We're not valued are we? We're unskilled workers. You don't have to go to university to be a carer.'

She speaks both to society and government when she says: 'You need to look after us. Stop putting us at the bottom of the list. You may well need care yourself one day and I'm not wiping your bum.'

The solutions are multi-faceted: to focus on developing a clearly defined career path for social care staff, including better training and higher pay — and that all-important recognition for the profession.

Covid had a catastrophic effect on care homes, the over 80s being 70 times more likely to die from it than those under 40.

Yet government policy — to protect the NHS at the expense of those in social care — proved calamitous.

Hospitals discharged patients into homes without testing them for the virus, with the disease running riot among the

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