For the families of the half a million people living in Britain’s care homes, the past few months have been a nightmare. Some have waited for hours outside their loved one’s window, hoping to catch a glimpse of them, and spent their evenings anxiously listening to news of the mounting death toll behind the homes’ closed doors.
While the rest of the country has been emerging from lockdown, with punters returning to pubs and hairdressers with gusto, care home residents have remained blocked off from their relatives, awaiting government guidance.
This week they were granted just that, after Health Secretary Matt Hancock gave the green light for visits to resume. But families eager to reunite will have new problems on their hands.
The Government has said care home residents should only be allowed to see one nominated visitor, splitting families as they argue over who will be the one to spend time with parents or grandparents.
This guidance has not only been slow in coming but for some, will delay the reuniting process yet further. Even before the announcement a number of care homes, frustrated by long delays in easing lockdown for their residents and seeing the detrimental effects on their health, decided to allow families to come and sit in the garden with their relatives.
For Janet Skirrow, 63, and her brother, the new rules may mean that only one of them will now be able to visit their 81-year-old mother, who lives in a care home in Sheffield.
“The garden visits started about a month ago and have been wonderful,” Skirrow says. “Yes protocol is strict – no children are allowed, you can’t go inside the building, you have your temperature taken and keep your distance – but at least we’ve both been able to see Mum.”
She adds that if the home followed the guidance to the letter and said only one person from the family would visit, it would have to be her. “My brother works full-time, whereas I’m retired so it makes more sense. But it’s a shame as it means my husband or children can’t visit and neither can my brother or his two girls. They would all love to see her.”
Skirrow’s daughter has just given birth, and is desperate for her to meet her new great-grandchild.
“Mum has mild dementia. I’ve told her about Ellis, the new baby, but she doesn’t remember she has a three-week-old great-grandchild. If she saw him a lot she would start to recognise him.”
“It really lifts her overall,” she adds of in-person interactions, “even if she can’t remember it.”
Research suggests that social interaction can slow down the effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease; almost like exercising the brain, recognising familiar faces can help protect against deteriorating memory. Indeed some care workers said they’d noticed residents fading away during lockdown, as pining for their relatives meant they started eating less; their sleep patterns thrown into disarray.
Although many care homes have done their best to set up video calls with families, dementia sufferers, who make up around 80 per cent of their residents, often struggle to use the technology required. Studies have also shown that human touch and eye contact, which no number of Zoom chats can facilitate, can have a hugely beneficial effect on the health of elderly people. This is unlikely to be possible for some time, as the Government has recommended that visitors must wear face masks and avoid skin-on-skin contact, including hugs and kisses.
Hearing half-familiar voices but only seeing an unidentifiable form in a face mask could well be distressing for many older people already struggling to recognise loved ones. Conceding this, government guidance suggests visitors avoid wearing hats or anything else that might conceal their face further, and to put on clothing that a resident would more likely recognise.
But a familiar coat or dress is unlikely to make up for not being able to kiss loved ones for the first time in four months.
“People in care homes are missing out and I’m worried how long it’ll go on for. Who knows how many months it will be before mum gets to hug or even meet her great-grandson,” Skirrow says. “I understand you have to be cautious about the risk of coronavirus, but this is also about people’s quality of life.”
She said the official guidance was too strict, especially as care homes had already found their own ways of organising visits safely. “It’s overkill. Surely if you are visiting outside and are at a distance, different visitors could come. There must be so little risk. This can’t be the furthest it will go for people in care homes.”
Before lockdown Skirrow would take her mother out for the day – to dementia-friendly cinema screenings and theatre performances. “She loves stimulation, activities and going out. I’ve no idea when she’ll be allowed out again.”
She hopes that their first destination – once officially allowed – will be the botanical gardens in Sheffield. “She loves flowers and there’s a lovely cafe.”
Philip Lane is also the only one from his family who will be able to see his 94-year-old mother, with whom he has been speaking on the phone every day since lockdown began. She has been struggling with boredom due to the absence of visitors or even the distraction of sport on television; since the home has restarted visits, “I’ve been able to sit for 30 minutes, by appointment, in the garden with a mask on while she sits in the doorway. But my wife and other family and friends are definitely not allowed. It’s preventing variety in social contact for her,” he explains.
It is at least an improvement on before, he adds, when he would only be able to see her through the glass of the front door and leave a few bags of treats that would have to be quarantined for a few days or sanitised before she could touch them. Wasting what might be the final years of loved ones’ lives, however, is a difficult pill to swallow – made worse by the new guidelines forcing siblings to argue over who will visit, and even suggesting that plastic or glass barriers be placed between residents and visitors. If the Government really does mean to show how much it values our elderly, allowing them to interact with much-missed loved ones for the first time in months would surely be a good place to start.