A friend of mine lost her father to Covid the other day, but long before he died he had only been able to see his family through the window of his care home. It was to protect other residents and staff, of course, but it was a lonely end to life for the father of nine children. And for my friend, who lives in London, far away from her father, the funeral Mass was lonely too. She watched it in her flat, on her computer.
Covid has taken a toll on our social selves in all sorts of ways, but it’s been catastrophic in its effects on the old, who need care either in a care home or in their own home. My own mother died at the end of last year and I can only thank God that her dying happened at home. She had carers provided by the regional health board – this was in Ireland – and about half a dozen of them visited over the course of a week, three times a day.
I was there for the last weeks of her life. There’s nothing to like about the death of your mother, but I am beyond measure relieved that her last weeks weren’t made grimmer by carers having to wear masks and everyone having to keep their distance, which is the lot of every older person right now.
The Government has updated its advice to care homes recently, and it makes clear that “for areas with a high local Covid alert level (high risk or very high risk), visiting should be limited to exceptional circumstances only, such as end of life.
“Where visiting is restricted due to the local Covid alert level and if, after an individual assessment of the resident’s circumstances, it is determined that in-person visitation is not appropriate, care homes should support visiting in a virtual manner.”
These guidelines of course depend on local circumstances; but just think of the horrors implicit in this advice. Only at the end of life. Virtual visiting. How many older people do you know who would be at ease talking to their friends and relations on a screen? What chance that anyone with dementia would actually relate to Skype, or understand why no one is coming near them?
Whenever my mother was in hospital with an infection, I had to give her food and drink: the nurses were too busy to make sure she ate. How many elderly people are quietly dying of neglect – hunger and, worse, thirst – so that ministers can protect “our” NHS?
The Government’s latest idea is to restrict carers to visiting one care home (its other genius idea has been to release infected patients from hospitals back to care homes). But what about those carers who visit people in their own homes? There’s no restrictions there, yet far more people get help to dress and wash at home. Carers have to visit several clients; the risks are obvious and unavoidable.
There really is a case for families to be allowed to visit their elderly relatives once they’re wearing gloves and masks, wash and sanitise their hands, and keep their distance. Also friends. And priests.
Many clergy I know aren’t allowed into care homes. But the old are often lonely. If they could be given autonomy – and is that too much to ask when you’re over 80? – my guess is that most of them would take their chances and risk having people they know come to see them. Obviously the problem is the danger to other residents but it must be relatively slight if the visitors behave.
It’s not as if the situation for the elderly is decent at the best of times. Some care homes are charming; others are hellish. And heaven help you if you are without family.
Unquestionably, the care you get in your own environment depends on what you can pay. In the case of my uncle, the minimum spending on visiting carers meant that the people who came to heat his food and give him medication – they didn’t actually spend their half hour doing any cleaning – didn’t even speak his language. It was only when he paid half as much again that he was visited by nice middle-aged English ladies whom he could flirt with harmlessly because they could understand his jokes.
Our old people deserve better than this. Let them decide, if they’re mentally competent, what risks they’re prepared to take. They’re old enough to be treated as grown-ups.