A couple of years ago I spent a very unsatisfactory and emotionally frustrating day in Worthing.

And it wasn’t just because I struggled to find a decent Fish n’ Chip shop to buy some battered cod.

My grandmother had spent a number of months in the local hospital and I needed to find a new care home that would meet her increased care needs now she was medically ready to leave hospital. Her dementia had worsened. Her previous care home was clear they could no longer accept her back.

Armed with a directory of local care services from West Sussex County Council, [about as suitable a door-stop as I could ever find], I set about my task. I was looking for a specialist dementia home that appeared to offer value for money; comfort; but crucially, an available bed. Do a quick search on a few websites and you quickly see there are well in excess of 100 care homes in Worthing but with so many of these rated as “Good” by the Care Quality Commission, it was hard to know where to start.

I just didn’t know what information to prioritise. I also didn’t know what information to trust.

So I spent the day traipsing around, probably looking at eight homes in total. In some homes I stepped through the front door and then stepped right out again. I wished I had come across information in advance that would have allowed me to make speedier decisions about which homes to visit and which, even though they were rated “Good”, from a relative’s point of view, simply weren’t good enough and didn’t warrant a visit.

It is this personal experience that now informs so much of my professional interest in campaigning for better care home choices. There are still too many care homes in England which are inadequate or struggling - nearly 4,000 in fact. And yet compared with experiences of other markets, customers often don’t feel ‘king’ – I certainly didn’t!

Like many other customers in this opaque market, I felt I had to make a tough choice, but with too little customer feedback to go on and not enough time in which to do it.

At Independent Age, we know overall levels of public knowledge or understanding of care homes are often lacking. In our ‘Shining a light on care’ report, we showed that nearly double (29%) the number of British adults would first search Google or another search engine to look for information on care homes before they would consider looking to their local council (16%) or even the Care Quality Commission (another 16%). A further fifth (22%) of all British adults said they simply wouldn’t know where to look for information on a care home, with a similar proportion (19%) of over-65s agreeing they just wouldn’t know what information to seek out on care home quality.

This in turn shapes wider public perceptions of the overall quality on offer in care homes, with more British adults (45%) believing the quality is bad, than those who believe overall the quality on offer is good (39%). We need to do better than this in a market valued at nearly £16 billion.

That is why I am so pleased we have partnered up with a local Healthwatch – Healthwatch Camden – which gives out information to local people on care and health providers and can help influence the way they deliver their services.

In recent months, we have worked with Healthwatch Camden to test our new series of ‘care home quality indicators’ to help enhance the information available to local people so they can compare care providers where they are already starting to think about a care home.

And we are delighted with the results.

Following a small pilot including volunteer visits to all seven care homes for older people in the London Borough of Camden, there are helpful new reports available to local residents which focus on the aspects of care older people had told us mattered to them most when choosing a care home.

Among other things, the reports help Camden residents get a clearer, richer picture of the homes in their area that offer the most visible management. They detail which homes have staff with the time, as well as the skills, to do their jobs. But perhaps most important of all, they provide easy-to-digest information on whether the homes - above and beyond providing caring and safe environments - are enjoyable places to live. For example, there’s information on the range of activities on offer and the quality, choice and flexibility around mealtimes. Having options around mealtimes certainly mattered a lot to my grandmother, who didn’t always want to feel pressured to go to the canteen but wanted the choice to eat when she wanted, and on her own.

Following some feedback, we have now refined the ‘care home quality indicators’ so that any local Healthwatch interested in completing visits of their own can assess how care providers are delivering and then report back to their own local residents. We want to encourage other local Healthwatch to get involved and will be campaigning in the coming months to secure better care for all those who need it.

If all that results in older people and their relatives feeling they have more local feedback they can look at and trust – and avoid wasted trips and visits where certain homes are never going to meet their personal needs and preferences – all the better.

At the very least, day visits down to Worthing might prove a lot easier.

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