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Care home staff are working harder than ever, but Cable member Kate Oliver reflects on how visiting restrictions and worries about infections are affecting her and her 97-year-old mum.

Last week, I had ‘the chat’ with the very sympathetic and competent chair of my 97-year-old mother’s charitable care home in Bristol. Together with the care home manager, they are busting a gut to speak to all relatives of residents, running weekly online board meetings, and speaking by phone every day. The chair has even cycled all around our peaceful but pandemic city, not for his daily exercise quotient, but to find whatever protective equipment (PPE) he can lay his hands on for the devoted carers when infection strikes.

What a scandal is being visited upon all care homes across the country! Only after 12 weeks since the UK government’s first alert from China, and five weeks into lockdown, was the plight of care workers, their clients and their relatives aired. 

And this scandal is only the tip of the iceberg. For years, we’ve heard warnings about inadequate funding as the pressure on adult social care increases, while workers feel undervalued and are poorly paid.

Away from this chaos, it is hard enough for our resident loved ones, be they young or old, with learning impairments, disabilities or dementia, to be without their relatives and friends alongside them, whether or not they have contracted Covid-19 – yet. 

My mother’s residential home closed its doors to all but residents’ relatives and essential health workers in early March – with a good deal more foresight than the government. A week later, several days before national lockdown, relatives were required to stay away. 

So we’ve been telephoning her frequently and she is appreciating the contact. For as long as she is well enough to answer her phone and to make the occasional call herself, all is still well with her locked-down world. Staff are all at their jobs, with more stress than usual, but with the same love and dedication to all their residents. The Facebook page is updated daily with the imaginative activities that staff are organising for the residents, such as basket weaving and a ping-pong challenge. The chair is reporting weekly to relatives on the website and by email. The carers ring me if anything particular needs to be decided or provided for my mother. 

No resident or staff has shown symptoms yet, thanks to this loyal, international team of carers and the foresight of managers. Those extra days of lockdown taken by leaders may be one of the reasons why the care home is still free of Covid-19. But nonetheless, underlying all this unimpeachable care, it is enraging and entirely unnecessary that the residents are being nursed by skilled, experienced, committed, loving staff who have no choice but to transmit the virus or become the victims of transmission because for too long they did not have more than a handful of visors and no gowns. 

Looking back and forward

Meanwhile, I was asked in ‘the chat’ what would our family want for our 97-year-old mother if, while the virus runs circles around us untested, she is to die without us alongside her; without us to bear witness to her laboured, slowed and fading breath, to stroke her brow, her hands, to moisten her lips and plump her pillow; and to reassure her of the love and inspiration felt by colleagues, friends and family. She already has an advance directive (with the suddenly fashionable Do Not Resuscitate long ago included), and registered lasting powers of attorney for her finances, health and welfare.

She is largely without sight so she cannot see us on tablets or phones, though if she is dying with her hearing aids in she might be able to discern our remote voices. So what more might she ask of us? What would she want, I wonder? 

She was a botanist and zoologist. Seventy-five years ago she graduated and went to work on a farm during the war. Sixty years ago she started teaching young townies to understand about biology, ecology, food production and nutrition. She focussed on the pupils who found it hardest to concentrate, to understand the science. Forty years ago she ‘retired’ and became a volunteer reading helper in an inner London primary school. Pre-breakfast club era, she baked bread, made marmalade and fed her under-nourished pupils who, without breakfast at home, were too hungry and weary to concentrate on reading until they had eaten. 

She actively opposed nuclear weapons and GM crops. She rode a bike and cooked a lot of cabbage. She wore old sandals in the summer and ‘walking shoes’ in the winter. Yes, you’ve guessed: She is a socialist, albeit a heavily compromised, middle-class one. 

What she wants right now is a socialist not a centrist opposition. And then a transformational, co-operative agenda, a fairer world and healthier planet. So that’s what I want to give her. Before the end of lockdown? No chance. Before she dies? Less and less likely as politicians play catch up, practise data obfuscation and continue to sell off the NHS in their ‘Americana’ Brexit; and as my metaphorical fingers ache, so tightly crossed for so long while social care, an ideologically neglected cornerstone of the welfare state, crumbles as predicted. But let’s hope she can hear me tell her that is what I will aim for when she is no longer with us.

And if she doesn’t die of Covid-19? Then I can tell her about the ways in which the world is changing. Not from the dysfunctional and corrupt inside outwards, but from the margins, as we reclaim the productivity of our communities, welcome the shunned, prioritise wellbeing and public service. And – yes – redistribute wealth so that we can repurpose our lives, nurture our humanity and restore our reeling planet. Now I will speak with her on the phone about the end of her life. 

‘What would you want if the lurgy alights on you?’ You will answer my questions calmly and rationally, respecting my distress and exhibiting none of your own over the phone; and then you will change the subject and tell me mischievously how your speaking clock was smote by a sunbeam on your window sill and regained the correct time; or how your best friend’s daughter is coping in a new nursing job in a London hospice. Covid again…

Since your husband had a heart attack over thirty years ago while waiting alone on a bench in St Thomas’ Hospital A&E in pre-triage days, you’ve demonstrated your thoroughly modern ‘resilience’ and become proficient at solitary. So best of luck with the next stage of your long life without any of us around you, just treasured phone calls from your dearests and poppy seed cake left on the doorstep as I ring and run. If it catches you, go gently into that dark light, mum, and thank you, big thank you.

Kate Oliver is a Bristol Cable member and was elected to sit on the Cable’s board of directors.

You can also read our investigation into outbreaks of Covid-19 in Bristol’s care homes and their struggles with PPE, as well an in-depth look into what the undervalued social care sector needs in order to improve after the pandemic.

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