UK’s care homes tap into ’boutique vibe’ to fill empty beds

From entertainers to seafarers, care providers are moving to bespoke offerings catering to niche markets. Article from The Guardian.

Brinsworth House, a care home for retired light entertainers, is a paradise for old pros, whether they are former wig makers, set designers or the one-time stars of the show. Among faded playbills, treasured programmes and portraits of actors lining the walls of the Middlesex care home, residents live out memories from before their final curtain call.

“This home speaks to my soul,” said Rosario, a former flamenco dancer who will celebrate her 90th birthday at Brinsworth House in June. “We hold the memories of all the performers who have lived here. We have all lived very interesting lives and understand each other’s journey through life, so can talk about our thoughts, ideas and talk about the past. This home is quite extraordinarily perfect.”

More than 80% of the UK’s care home market is made up of independent, small and medium-sized providers. The last year has been tough for them, with some experts estimating that 6,500 could close over the next five years. Care homes had tens of thousands of deaths during the pandemic, which has left many beds vacant.

And yet demand for care beds is expected to soar in the next 30 years. This has created a new market opportunity, according to Debbie Harris, the founder and managing director of Autumna, the largest UK online directory of care services.

“Some small, canny care homes are becoming market winners by turning themselves into bespoke and boutique offerings,” she said. “This could transform the care home sector.”

The 35-bed Elliscombe House nursing home in Somerset, opening in six weeks’ time, is consciously targeting this “boutique vibe”, with en suite conservatories and interior decoration sourced directly from small, independent factories in India.

The senior management team at the home, three of whom have come from Barchester Healthcare, one of the biggest independent care providers in the UK, say a smaller home is key to creating the niche environment they are aiming for.

“Our specific purpose has been to create a boutique care home,” said Glenn Trotman, the owner and managing director of the Ellie Group, which owns the home.

But it is among the UK’s 2,000 charitable care homes that the most highly personalised later life options can be found.

Tonic Housing in Lambeth, south London, will open its doors this summer in the first UK retirement community for LBGT+ residents. “The housewarming for our 19 properties will be a drag night,” said Matthew Riley. “For ongoing activities, we’re talking to people from Netflix’s The Big Flower Fight, RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, and looking at walking tours of London that specialise in queer history.”

Denville Hall, a retirement home in Northwood, Middlesex, for members of the theatrical profession, is strongly tailored to its residents’ former profession: the National Theatre streams live performances into the home, and younger professionals regularly visit to perform.

For residents and tenants at the Royal Alfred Seafarers’ Society’s two care homes in Banstead, Surrey, specialised activities from rope work to model boatmaking are key to their happiness. “In the home there is a lot of memorabilia of shipping; there’s model ships, sextants and pictures of ships,” said John Conacher, 85, a former master mariner. “I was at sea for quite a while so it’s very much a part of my life.”

Joan Maud Hatfield, a 97-year-old former Wren, said: “My favourite thing about living at the Royal Alfred is the knowledge that you are mixing with people of the same background. The sea has always meant something to us. For us, it was a way of life.”

Mick Howarth, the welfare services manager at the Nautilus Welfare Fund care home in Wallasey, Merseyside, whose interior layout is designed to be reminiscent of a ship’s deck, said it takes great pride in organising maritime activities for its residents. “We have mariners from the local community coming in to give talks about the sea, and frequently visit the local maritime museum,” he said.

Nadra Ahmed, the chair of the National Care Association, said many more small care homes could seek unique niches for themselves as lockdown eases. “This past year has been horrendous for smaller providers,” she said. “Many will be looking to tailor their service to attract new residents to fill their empty beds.”

Those who have dedicated their lives to the natural world have a choice for their final home from home: the Gardeners’ Royal Benevolent Society – recently renamed Perennial – offers residential bungalows for retired horticulturalists, while the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution owns two residential care homes in Somerset and Suffolk for people with farming backgrounds.

Ben, the occupational fund for people in the motor and related industries, runs three residential care homes – one of which hosts an annual vintage car show for residents – and a day centre gifted to it by Peugeot.

But some private homes have accidentally developed an association with people from particular backgrounds. The Compton Lodge care home in north London has gradually become the local go-to care home for artists, said its manager, Adam Harwood.

““We focus on artistic activities, while outings tend to be to places like the Royal Opera and the Royal Albert Hall,” he said.

There are even idiosyncratic hidden gems that are boutique without even trying: Tabley House care home – set in a Grade I-listed Palladian house in Cheshire that has served as a TV and film location for productions including The Black Prince and the Forsyth Saga – has its own museum.

Ann Kenrick, the first female Master of the 400-year-old Charterhouse almshouse in the heart of London, said what made her almshouse in the City of London unique was that its “brothers” (even the female residents are called brothers) live as a community.

“Our small size is our strength,” she said. “We work together in a microcosm of community, just like a real family.”

Amelia Hill