1. Take questions with you
Once you’ve shortlisted your care homes, you’ll be looking to make your first visit. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions when you visit: the more information you have, the more confident you’ll feel about making the best choice.
Ahead of your first visit, download our checklist of questions to discuss with the person you’re supporting, as well as potentially with other family members or close friends. There might be additional questions that are important to you and others. Make sure you write these down.
2. Pay attention to fees, additional costs and other contract terms
On our checklist there are some key questions around fees, additional costs and other contract terms, which are very important to address. For even more detailed information about what to look for in a care home contract, visit Care home contracts.
If your loved one’s care is being paid for by the local authority and a care home suggests that a third-party top-up fee could be paid (maybe to help cover the cost of the room or for a room with a better view), explain that you’ll talk to the local authority about this. Third-party top-up fees should always be a voluntary payment and the contract for this should be between the person paying the top-up fee and the local authority, not the care home.
NHS-funded Nursing Care (FNC) is another area that our research at Which? has shown is potentially being exploited by care homes. If your loved one is eligible for nursing care contribution, it’s paid directly to the care home by the NHS. If the person you are caring is going to be a self-funder, check with the care home that the fee they are quoting includes nursing costs. If FNC is then awarded, this amount should be deducted from the bill.
3. Use your senses
As well as arming yourself with your list of questions, use all your senses to help inform you: what you see, hear, smell and feel on a visit are as important as what you’re told.
- See: does seating layout encourage people to socialise? Do residents look happy, well cared-for and relaxed rather than slumped asleep? Look for signs of activity and things to do. This can mean a more able resident doing washing-up, newspapers in easy reach or personal photos and ornaments scattered around, as much as planned activity.
- Hear: listen for laughter and chatter. Do staff sit and chat with residents in a way that you and the residents like? Do staff sound like they’re working in the residents’ home, rather than residents living in a workplace? Warning sounds to listen out for include shouting and the persistent ringing of unanswered call bells.
- Smell: is there a smell of fresh air rather than air freshener masking unpleasant smells?
- Feel: do you feel positive as you leave?
A sitting room full of residents and no staff means nobody is caring for those people
4. Make a surprise visit or two
After you and, where possible, your loved one have chosen the care home you think will be suitable, visit several times without notice to see what the home’s really like. For example, are sandwiches being served for supper rather than the tempting menu displayed, and is everyone in bed by 7pm?
It can be useful to make a second unannounced visit. You can see how the staff interact with the residents, how many people are around and what activities are going on.
5. Consider arranging a trial stay
If your loved one wants to see what living in a care home is like, it might be possible to arrange a trial stay. Everyone is different, so only do this if you think they would understand the reasons for the visit and benefit from it. If you’re interested in this, ask if it’s possible when you visit.
You might also be able to arrange a short-term stay for respite care to give you or another carer a break. This could be a good opportunity for your loved one to see what it’s like to be in a care home, even if it’s only for a week or two.
How to make a shortlist of suitable care homes, and uncover key information to ensure your loved one’s needs are met.
Learn about care home providers, registered care homes and specialist support in care homes.
We explain what should be in a good care home contract, who is involved and what to do if you spot any problems.