JUDE BARBACK visits Ranfurly in Auckland and gets the low-down on the home’s targeting by Campbell Live.

Once upon a time there was a war veterans’ rest home called Ranfurly. It seems apt to begin in this fashion. I’ve written about Ranfurly Home and Hospital before, and in fairly glowing terms. Indeed, the idea of breathing new life into a dilapidated war veterans’ home has a certain romantic quality.

However, this was all PCL. Pre-Campbell Live. Some seven months after that piece was published, the fairy tale was to take some darker turns.

In October last year, TV3’s Campbell Live ran a damning report on Ranfurly, claiming that standards had slipped since Retirement Assets Limited had taken over the operation of the rest home.

It was to be the first of three attacks on the facility. The second report targeted a resident with dementia who allegedly lost his way returning to Ranfurly, and the third a resident who fell from his power chair in public view.

Campbell Live’s treatment of each incident was one-sided and loaded with pre-agenda. Six months after the television treatment, I meet with manager Helen Martelli and hear the other side. I hear how the Campbell Live crew and the nurses’ union NZNO unlawfully gained entry into the secure dementia unit at 6.30am one morning – a move that later prompted a formal written apology from NZNO. I hear about sincere apologies of families who appeared on the show. I hear how a breach of the broadcasting standards was filed with the Broadcasting Standards Authority but frustratingly took nine months for the Authority to uphold the complaint as to accuracy and fairness; little comfort for Ranfurly after such a long time. I hear many facets of the incidents that make it clear Ranfurly was unfairly dealt a rough hand by the media.

But actually, none of this is particularly relevant anymore. I am more interested in how Ranfurly has emerged from the fray, and in what I will find on my tour of the facility.

It is what one would expect from a Retirement Assets Limited product – classy, modern, immaculate. Even on a rainy Auckland day, the place is bathed in natural light. It is spacious, tasteful, yet practical. From the $56,000 hydrotherapy bath, to the state-of-the-art kitchen headed up by professional executive chef Terence, I cannot fault it on appearances. Martelli shares with me how they have already introduced a variety of technological innovations, including residents selecting their meals via an iPad and the introduction of electronic patient records.

Of course, a facility’s operation runs much deeper than shiny surfaces and bells and whistles, and so I ask to see the resident satisfaction surveys. The last one, with 56 per cent take-up, being over twice previous responses, reveals a 98 per cent satisfaction rating.

I then visit Shirley, a resident. While I am absorbing the dramatic view of Auckland from her window, I realise she has ducked into her ensuite. I wonder if I have unnerved her in some way, but no, she is simply aching to show off her personal bathroom. “You’re missing the best part!” she says.

I also meet Bob, who has just turned 100. His room is equally impressive, with views spanning across Auckland, but it is the signed Blues jersey hanging above his bed that takes my eye. He was lucky enough to attend the All Blacks versus English test match at Eden Park, something that Ranfurly staff helped arrange. He can barely hide his disdain when I tell him I am a Chiefs supporter, but he softens as he spreads his many birthday cards out on his bed, including one from the Queen and one from Prime Minister John Key, whom Bob refers to as “the old boy”.

I meet several other residents along the way and their endorsement of Ranfurly echoes the high level of satisfaction indicated by the survey. I catch the last of the residents enjoying their lunch – fish and chips day, served out of paper like the “old days”, with salad and even a beer to wash it down with.

It is all very impressive. So how did Ranfurly find itself so lambasted by TV3?

Four years ago, aware that the existing Ranfurly War Veterans’ Home was in need of a major overhaul of its facilities and operation, the Ranfurly Trust partnered with Retirement Assets Limited, headed by director Graham Wilkinson, to take over the management and operation of the home.

And so the facility underwent a massive transition. Staff wages were found to be elevated far beyond industry norms and contributed to the unsustainable model upon which Ranfurly was operating. Consequently, it was proposed to adjust wage levels unless staff undertook industry training to justify the remuneration, and although they still remain higher than the industry average – “in the top five per cent” Helen informs me – the fall-out from this particular change was significant.

Negotiations with the union were difficult, particularly because the restructure came at a time when the campaign for ‘fair share for aged care’ was gaining momentum. Martelli declares her support for fairer wages for aged care workers but is appalled at the way NZNO went about pursuing the cause.

The other controversial aspect of the overhaul was the activities programme. Martelli describes the previous arrangement as an 80/20 programme, whereby 20 per cent of the residents were benefitting from 80 per cent of the activities. However, changing this to a more inclusive and varied programme again attracted criticism.

While Wilkinson and Martelli were aware from the outset that such a transition was never going to be easy, nothing prepared them for the media’s misrepresentation of the changes.

It was damaging for Ranfurly. Martelli describes how it affected the facility’s reputation, and she shares some of the scathing comments she received by people who only had half the story via Campbell Live. She describes staff too embarrassed to wear their uniforms out for fear of criticism from the public.

Yet they have emerged from the experience stronger and more resilient. Martelli shows me a picture of an enormous bouquet of flowers on her desk – a vote of gratitude and confidence for her leadership through the ordeal. Then there is a pic of Wilkinson, cooking a morale-boosting breakfast barbecue for the staff.

These are the photos that will never see the light of day on Campbell Live, and more is the pity, for they represent a certain tenacity and tenderness that lies at the true heart of this organisation.

There have been lessons learned along the way as well. For example, Martelli admits there was room for improvement in the way that changes to activities were communicated with residents and families, and communication has since vastly improved.

There has also been some upside. Ranfurly Trust, as a major stakeholder in the complex, asked what it could do to assist, and as a result provides funding for specialised occupational therapy, physiotherapy, and even bought a new Mercedes minivan for resident use. The Auckland RSA has also assisted with its connections with Eden Park and Sky City.

In light of the publicity, it would be reasonable to expect that Retirement Assets Ltd is eager to prove itself, but in reality, the facility – its happy residents, united staff and sound leadership –speaks for itself.

As I drive out the gate, I set eyes on the construction of phase two of the Ranfurly development – the first of several planned retirement apartment complexes due to open in November this year, of which over half have been sold already. I think about the lengthy waiting list for the 60 beds in the hospital. I think about Bob and Shirley and the men enjoying their fish and chips and Tui beer. I decide that in spite of the difficult journey they’ve had, Ranfurly has achieved its ‘happily ever after’ ending after all.

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