When the Government first plunged Britain into lockdown, it assured us that protecting the elderly was its priority and it would do ‘everything possible’ to keep them safe. And rightly so.
But as someone who spent the past months working in care homes, looking after people with dementia, those words now couldn’t ring more hollow.
For I’ve come to the conclusion that far from protecting the vulnerable, this country’s increasingly strict restrictions could actually be harming them.
And with it now looking increasingly possible that care homes could remain locked down beyond Christmas, I fear that 2020 could forever be remembered as the year Britain’s elderly were hung out to dry.
An anonymous writer fears that far from protecting the vulnerable, this country’s increasingly strict coronavirus restrictions could actually be harming them (stock image)
Of course, from the outset of this pandemic, it was clear to us on the front line that, despite all the promises, the most vulnerable members of society were going to be left to fend for themselves.
How else can we explain the woefully inadequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) for care home staff like myself in March? Or the fact that patients were admitted from hospital without being tested for Covid-19?
I am pleased to say that both of those shortcomings have largely now been fixed. But the current restrictions in care homes still aren’t saving lives. In fact, they’re destroying them.
It’s not an exaggeration for me to say that, in the six years I’ve worked in care, I’ve never felt so depressed or angry at the neglect and inhumanity being inflicted on my residents.
When I return home from a shift I often find myself weeping out of sheer frustration and helplessness. The truth is that while we carers desperately want to help, we are being ordered not to.
I am an agency carer, working across several care homes in the North West of England on wards for residents with challenging behaviour and dementia.
In these types of care home, physical touch is a hugely important part of the care we give – for the simple reason that, often, residents simply cannot grasp or remember what we’re saying. If they are scared and anxious – as they frequently are – the best thing we can do is reassure them with a big smile, a hug, or simply by holding their hand.
Even worse, under the current restrictions, residents are not only forced to keep their distance from us carers – they’re also banned from engaging in any physical contact with their loved ones. Denied the right to seek comfort in their own family unit, such cruel treatment is often overwhelming.
The writer works as an agency carer across several nursing homes in the North West of England on wards for residents with challenging behaviour and dementia (stock image)
It is impossible to put into words how awful it is to stand in front of a screaming, sobbing man and not be allowed to hug him or gently guide him to his room – instead leaving him to wander the corridor in tears. This is only made worse given that with dementia, anxiety and distress often manifests itself as anger.
I’m regularly punched, kicked, slapped and bitten – but I put up with it, despite being paid only slightly more than the minimum wage. After all, it’s not their fault.
Though it doesn’t make it any less soul-destroying that I can’t give them the care that they need. I feel utterly ashamed.
Of course, things were hardly perfect before coronavirus struck. In particular, care homes already struggled with low levels of staffing. But with people frequently having to self-isolate if they have Covid symptoms, we have even fewer hands on deck. Any time we had to sit and chat with residents has disappeared. Now, the only brief human contact they have is when they’re fed, washed and turned over in bed.
The rest of the time, they’re left sitting alone in their rooms and staring at the walls.
We can’t take them outside, do activities, or have people coming in to sing for them.
All the things that once brought them joy have vanished, and you can see them shrivelling, their spirits broken.
The impact is particularly debilitating for those used to regular visitors – a luxury that was curtailed as soon as lockdown began.
Certainly it was encouraging to read last week that, despite the fact that 211 care home residents tragically died from Covid in a fortnight, social care experts continue to urge homes not to suspend visits.
As Age UK’s charity director Caroline Abrahams put it, we cannot allow care homes to be ‘hermetically sealed off from their local populations’. For as I’ve seen, the alternative is simply inhumane. People who used to walk around and chat now slump listlessly in their chairs.
At the start of this year one gentleman, whose wife visited him regularly, was very independent and ate a good diet. When her visits were stopped he became very distressed. Where once he would spend his days holding his wife’s hand and talking about the past, he was forced to sit in his room alone, screaming for the woman who made his life worth living.
As the weeks passed, he started to spit out his food whenever we tried to feed him. Eventually the management relented – finally allowing his wife to see him only when he was on his deathbed.
I have no doubt that if they had been allowed to see each other sooner, he would still be alive today.
During the summer, there was some easing of the restrictions. But it still wasn’t enough.
Just ask one elderly lady currently in my care who still wasn’t allowed to hold her newborn grandchild, even though she’d tested negative for Covid.
With visits now banned, and her essentially locked in, she might never get the chance again.
It’s a simple fact of life that many residents don’t have long to live. As a result, Covid rules are making their last months miserable.
Indeed, in recent days, I’ve had no fewer than five people say to me: ‘I don’t want to live like this, please kill me.’
Forgive me if it sounds callous, but is it so hard to imagine why they would make such a request?
In fact, looking at the suffering around me, I have no qualms about saying I would rather shoot my own parents than put them in a care home if they had dementia right now.
Boris Johnson, upon being elected Prime Minister last year, stood on the steps of Downing Street and promised to ‘fix the crisis in social care once and for all’ and ‘give every older person the dignity and security they deserve’.
Yet ‘dignity and security’ couldn’t be more absent.
So what should change? The simple answer is: a lot.
But to start with, I firmly believe that we should trust families to be able to make a choice about whether they should visit their loved ones.
It needn’t be too much of a risk. On those rare occasions when we have let people visit their dying parents or spouses, we’ve not seen any cases of coronavirus infections.
So perhaps we could let relatives visit people in their rooms, wearing PPE.
The residents’ quality of life would undoubtedly improve, while it would offer some relief to family members for whom this forced separation is torment too.
So please, Boris, don’t extend these harmful, inhumane restrictions over Christmas. This year, our residents will only want one gift: to have their dignity back.