With all the focus on the NHS, and the government’s strategy being based on protecting and supporting it, as Covid-19 hit the UK in March 2020, social care, and, in particular, care homes became the ugly ducklings, unsupported and largely cast adrift to fend for themselves.
Early guidance on locking down homes, obtaining and using PPE, and minimising the exposure of staff and residents to the virus was patchy at best, and testing wasn’t made available until long into the UK’s lockdown.
Nationally, the government has been widely criticised for the lack of support offered to care homes across the country. According to the New Scientist, figures published (as of 6 July) now show that an estimated 10% of all Covid-19 infections in England between 26 April and 7 June were among healthcare workers of care workers interacting with patients or care home residents, and almost 20,000 people died with Covid-19 in care homes and England and Wales between 2 March and 12 June. Yet, for many weeks, deaths in care homes weren’t even counted in the daily national statistic.
In my experience as a care home owner in Kent, the policies – a ring of steel, funding to help care homes operate safely during the Covd-19 pandemic, testing – set up to help care homes have been either non-existent or, in practical terms, shambolic. Attempting to navigate them has been time-consuming, frustrating, and largely futile.
In the last few days, Boris Johnson’s much –discussed remark that, “too many care homes didn’t really follow the procedures,” has been adding to the media anger around care homes and Covid-19. Many people have spoken out about the lack of clear guidance, and virtually all of us involved in caring for our elderly and vulnerable people in care homes will have had experience of the challenges involved in getting hold of PPE and testing kits.
Then Covid-19 left many homes understaffed or reliant on agency workers as regular staff were forced to self-isolate, untested for a long time, in case they were infected.
But angry though we are, and devastated when we have lost residents – many of whom had lived under our care for a long time, and become dear friends – none of us in the social care sector are under any illusion that this is a new problem caused solely by Coronavirus.
The care home trap – not a new problem
Lack of proper funding for social care funding has been a problem for years, and so far, it appears to be that councils have used any new funds to plug old holes
In terms of national policy, it appears to have been accepted that organisations designed to look after the elderly, and by extension the elderly and vulnerable people themselves, can be left to draw their last breath.
Ageism has become a curse that has led to services for the elderly being underfunded or dismantled, and levels of pay kept to a minimum leading to challenges in recruiting, retaining and motivating staff. Understaffing, supplemented by reliance on agency staff, makes providing the levels of individualised, personal care that homes aspire to a daily challenge.
Despite the challenges, many homes usually provide excellent end-of-life care, where the dying are treated with dignity and compassion. But the events of recent months have served to highlight the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude towards care for the elderly and vulnerable which appears to pervade our government and many of our communities.
Tragically, this has resulted in many of our older population dying an undignified death, alone in hospital, or isolated in a care home without the comfort of their families being able to visit them.
Along with many of my peers in care home leadership, I am calling for this unsustainable and unacceptable attitude towards our elderly to change. Public debate on care of the elderly needs to become an urgent priority.
Many of us who are now in a position to spearhead change will become users of services for the elderly ourselves, or already have parents approaching the age when they may need care – one of the first questions we should be asking ourselves, is ‘am I happy for my parents to be cared for like this?’ swiftly followed by ‘would I be happy myself.’ By improving care for them, we are also taking care of ourselves, and one, day, our own children.
If we fail to change our approach to care, and funding for care now, we will see the collapse – already on the cards, but, due to Covid-19, almost inevitable – of a system already ‘Under Pressure’. Our government cannot afford to turn away from us now.
Here are some words to a favourite song that resonate at this time…..
“Turned away from it all like a blind man,
Sat on a fence but it don’t work.
Keep coming up with love but it’s so slashed and torn
Love, love, love, love, love
Insanity laughs under pressure we’re breaking
Can’t we give ourselves one more chance?
Why can’t we give love that one more chance?
Why can’t we give love, give love, give love, give love
Give love, give love, give love, give love, give love?
‘Cause love’s such an old fashioned word,
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night.
And love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves.
This is our last dance.”
(Under Pressure, Queen and David Bowie, 1981)