Newsmaker: Home help - Richard Furze, Chief executive, Friends of the Elderly

Tania Mason

After listening to Richard Furze talk about his job at Friends of the Elderly, you can't help but get an idea of how challenging he perceives it to be - he uses the word "difficult" no less than 15 times over our hour together.

He applies the word to all manner of problems facing his charity: from meeting the burgeoning care requirement for dementia sufferers; getting local authorities to clarify what grants are available; carrying out advocacy for older people; and convincing elderly parents to admit that their children aren't treating them well enough. Then there are the eternal staffing "difficulties" in finding enough NVQ trainers to train carers, finding quality care workers, attracting younger people - not to mention the job itself.

It's these last conundrums that have landed him in the news in the past week. Like all care-providing organisations, Friends of the Elderly, which looks after 2,000 old people each week, has a problem recruiting and retaining staff. The perception that care work is badly paid, boring, and very hard means that most of the charity's UK recruitment ads go unanswered. But the enlargement of the European Union on 1 May presented a happy solution to this difficulty - a single ad in the Warsaw Gazette in mid-April led to 30 interviews and 17 appointments.

Furze says staff shortages are common in the care sector. This is partly because there is a much higher proportion of part-timers, but it's also partly because people in the UK don't want to become carers. When Furze is asked why, he makes no secret of the fact that it's not a job he would ever do: "Well, I think we can start by asking ourselves why we wouldn't want to become carers. In the South East you could clean someone's house for £10 an hour, so why would you choose the much harder job of caring for people, which can be very tiring, difficult, demanding, and stressful?

"Also, it's not seen as a job with strong career development, and we need to change that. It's seen as menial, when actually it's very skilled," he says. "It requires dedication, and perhaps it's also the case that as society has changed, there are lots more expectations as to the kinds of jobs that women, in particular, want and are able to do. Why don't we have enough nurses here? You can blame the Government for not recruiting enough people, but what it really comes down to is whether nursing is seen as being well enough paid. That's why it's very difficult to get young people - a lot of our carers are in their 50s."

But it seems the new Europeans are free from such influences. "A lot of the Polish applicants are younger people who see caring as a profession, a vocation - and they can afford to do it because they were getting paid a lot less in Poland."

There's no doubt Furze is doing all he can to make working for Friends of the Elderly a more attractive proposition. Nine months ago, the charity set itself up as an NVQ assessment centre because it found it "difficult" to find enough NVQ trainers. So, with good training, and a policy of promoting from within, the charity hopes to convince recruits that although they start at £6.18 an hour, the opportunities are good for career progression and better pay.

Yet his own aversion to the job makes it plain that that this wasn't the career path he took. Furze has all the bedside manner of a chartered accountant, and it comes as no surprise to learn that he is a number-cruncher by trade and spent 17 years at Pricewaterhousecoopers before joining the voluntary sector 14 years ago. He is reserved and conservative - while the charity's 2003/4 annual review screams adjectives like "alarming" to describe the rate of care home closures, and "catastrophe" to warn of the approaching gulf in care provision, Furze sticks rigidly to "difficult".

What is clear, though, is that Furze is an effective manager who gets results. He was hired by Friends of the Elderly three years ago as finance director to oversee the establishment of a new charity, Hanover Friends, which combines Friends of the Elderly's care expertise with the Hanover Housing Group. The joint venture took over the running of Help the Aged's eight care homes and continues to manage them.

He also proudly proclaims that he runs a tight ship. "Three or four years ago, we were losing well over £1m on our homes, and now we can run them without any voluntary income. That's important because we need to provide security for our residents."

Furze also has an ambitious vision for the charity's future. He sees provision for those with dementia becoming increasingly important, not least because by the time we reach 80, one in four of us will suffer some degree of the condition. He also wants to persuade the Government to incentivise local authorities to give higher priority to preventative care - support that helps people to continue to live independently for longer.

He hopes to work with other organisations to increase advocacy for elderly people - so that more urgency is given by government to improve the care available for a rapidly aging population.

He foresees more and stronger alliances with complementary organisations, such as the Alzheimer's Society and Advocacy in Action. And he is a stickler for quality. He uses that word a lot, too - the quality reputation that Friends' care homes have, and the need to replicate it in all areas of its services.

"As chief executive, how do I judge quality? I have a fairly simple approach to it and consider whether the home is somewhere that I would like my mother, were she still alive, to live. If you can't pass that test, then you're not doing the right thing."


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