From below par to outstanding – how rural care home became the best of the bunch

The day Grace Sloan joined Balhousie Care Group, she made a bold promise to Chairman and founder Tony Banks: she was going to get the care home group its first ‘excellent’ rating.

Four years later Grace, manager at Balhousie Wheatlands in Bonnybridge, has made good on that promise not once but twice. Last week the formerly under-performing home was rated Grade 6 or ‘outstanding’ for the second year in a row.

Following a recent unannounced visit from the Care Inspectorate, the home was praised for its “sensitive, patient and caring” staff, resident activities that range from language lessons to physical games, and the sort of person-centred care which Balhousie Care Group is making a national name for.

For Grace, it was recognition of her long-held belief that the key to happy care home residents is happy and fulfilled care home staff. “The care had been very good when I arrived at Wheatlands,” says Grace. “Staff had not been allowed  to develop and use the skills they had. They needed nurturing. They were like sponges, they wanted to learn.”

Grace had been known as “a fixer” – seeing care homes through periods of change and making improvements, then leaving once they were on track. Wheatlands, a beautifully renovated facility in a 19th century setting, was different. “For the first time in my career I wanted to be somewhere long enough to see something through and develop it further. The joy of coming to Wheatlands was to be left alone to fill it with the staff I wanted,” she says.

Turning Balhousie Wheatlands around would take time and patience. Grace networked heavily with the local community and with stakeholders such as Falkirk Council, building up trust and confidence and carefully developing a positive reputation for the home. It took a year for occupancy levels to rise. “For me that was all about inclusion and getting everyone involved in the decision making,” she says.

She created an open-door policy – quite literally. There are two entrances to her office, one which had been permanently shut. Grace opened both doors and kept them open. There is now a regular flow of staff, residents and family members coming in and out to chat, meet and seek advice.

Wheatlands’ lounge area doubles as a film screening area, its entry door and corridor decorated to resemble a cinema entrance. A small room on the ground floor has been turned into an area for Namaste care – multi-sensory therapies, music and massage which address the needs of residents with advanced dementia. Its community links are strong, with visits from schoolchildren, field trips for residents. There is a big emphasis on physical activity, either through games in the home, walks in the countryside or dog walks with Jacob, Grace’s pug, who acts as a ‘therapet’ for residents.

Wheatlands’ Grade 6 ratings were the first for Balhousie Care Group (although they have since been joined by three other facilities – Ruthven Towers care home in Auchterarder and the group’s two advanced specialist care facilities in Perthshire) and also the first for any care home in the Stirlingshire region. It is also just the latest in a long line of accolades for the Perth-based care home group. In just the last few months Balhousie Care has seen its Dementia Consultant Yvonne Manson win an RCNi Leadership Award, care home worker Ross Balmer named a runner-up in the Scottish Care Awards, and the whole Balhousie Group named Service Provider of the Year in The Courier Business Awards.

Says Grace, who also acts as a mentor to other care home managers across the group: “I’m so proud of my staff for this latest round of ratings, and the comments made by residents and their families are the icing on the cake. To hear phrases like ‘nothing is a problem’ and ‘they are a credit to nursing’ make it all worthwhile.”

Claire Docherty, Head of Operations at Balhousie Care Group, said: “Wheatlands’ second round of Grade 6 ratings are hugely well deserved. The inspiring thing about Grace and her staff is that they don’t sit on their laurels. They’re always trying to make improvements and constantly coming up with innovative ways to make residents feel happy, healthy and secure in the home.”