Debbie Harris – Founder of Autumna
Choosing a care home – or care at home – for a much-loved family member can be a long and emotional experience. Or at least it used to be. But log onto autumna.co.uk and all the information you need is now there at the touch of the button with the added bonus of a telephone helpline.
Launched in 2019 by former estate agent Debbie Harris, Autumna is the UK’s largest directory of care homes, home care, live-in care and retirement living with more than 25,000 providers listed on its database. But if it hadn’t been for Debbie’s Auntie Margaret, this unique service may never have come into being.
‘I gave up work to be a stay-at-home mum and raise my children,’ says Debbie who hails from Kent. ‘So when my lovely Auntie Margaret needed residential care back in 2006, I was the family member who ended up sorting it out.
‘I’ve always been very family-oriented – the one who picked up all the waifs and strays – but it was only recently that I realised I was really just perpetuating what my mum used to do in her local community. She’s 88 now but has always been the one to help the elderly in her village.’
In 2006, many people still did not own a home computer and had never heard of Google, including Debbie who admits she had no idea where to start looking for information. Her aunt was self-funding and with little help from the hospital, Debbie resorted to trawling through Yellow Pages.
‘At the time there were 18 care homes in and around Tunbridge Wells, so I had no choice but to phone them all individually,’ she recalls. ‘Today there are 36. I’d never even sent an email before, but I thought there had to be a demand for an online directory that would gather essential information about care providers for the elderly. So I took the plunge and decided to launch Best-Care-Home.com.’
Debbie initially listed all the care homes rated 3-stars by the CQC, the Care Quality Commission independently regulating health and social care in England. But how to differentiate one from another? Debbie invited anyone with personal experience of a care facility to leave a review on the site and whilst it took a while to bring care homes round to the idea, they began to see the benefits of earning a good review. Meanwhile, she spread the word about her website to health care professionals, solicitors, and other people involved with her target users.
After selling her original company, in 2015 Debbie launched Chosen with Care, a consultancy offering a bespoke service to self-funding families looking for later-life care and care homes. She resolved never to accept referral fees from providers so that her client’s interests were always put first, and soon her reputation spread.
‘In the following years, my team grew steadily and we placed over 1,000 clients into carefully selected care homes, as well as offering free advice to many thousands more,’ says Debbie. ‘Then in 2019, I decided to take Chosen with Care online and make our database of care homes and services available to the public, rebranded as Autumna. The name reflects this period of people’s lives, and our orange logo was inspired by my new grandson’s wonderful hair, born on the day that we launched!
‘In 2020 when Covid restrictions stopped people from entering care homes, Autumna was an invaluable tool for families to research different options. And we have since added in various other accreditations providing information that isn’t so easy for people to discover for themselves. And it’s all free to search, apart from the personal Chosen with Care option.’
Debbie’s team of 24 all work from home, but sit in front of a virtual office screen each day using Microsoft Teams. After an initial 9am greeting, every member mutes their sound, but retains the feeling of working in a community, whether in the tech group or on the helpline. For members wanting personal advice on care options to suit their family’s needs, the advice line is open seven days a week.
Debbie hopes that membership of the Silver Marketing Association can help Autumna to bond with other organisations involved with care of the elderly. ‘The NHS does a great job in many areas, but everyone in the care sector needs to pull together in a more cohesive way if we are to do the best job,’ she says.
So what might Debbie be doing now if it hadn’t been for Auntie Margaret? ‘Probably something pretty similar, though I probably wouldn’t have imagined me doing it online,’ she laughs. ‘But caring for people seems to run in my family. Autumna’s prime function is to save people time and take the stress out of finding a care home or alternative solution – the kind of service I wish had existed to help me find the best for Margaret.’
Author: Gillian Thornton