Exploring the plight of older citizens and their carers

The average age of people in care homes is 85. That places them as the first generation to be raised entirely in the NHS: the product of the post-war movement to secure a more equitable society that looked after all its people, not just those who could afford it. Education, health and economic security were the pillars of this new society, spearheaded by a crusading Labour government that created, among other triumphs, the NHS. The people in care homes now are the flowers of that movement. They are the children of heroes who swept back from the continent and demanded a better future for them.

There are at least 600 senior citizens in care homes in Surrey: some in NHS homes, some in private homes. This figure does not retired people living independently, for example in retirement flats or warden-based communities. They are the people who cannot be looked after adequately at home, or they cannot quite look after themselves, or they have no-one. They have opted for communal care as their last home.

They are served by unsung heroes: carers who are generally low-paid but highly dedicated. Though their work is essential, it is rarely glamorous. I imagine during the coronavirus outbreak, it is also an anxious, challenging and upsetting experience. Do they have protective equipment – not much. Do they have training to help their residents to an easy death if coronavirus takes hold? No, they don’t. Did you know that care homes are not counted in these figures, though it is estimated that a further 50% of deaths occur there, bringing their toll well above the normal levels for even an elderly sample?

Did you know that only the first five residents in a home receive a test, and that is only when symptoms start showing? When symptoms start showing in a care home, it means the infection has already been spreading in for 5 days, undetected. The confirmation is as much a omen as a diagnosis for a frail community. The governments shiny new promise to test anyone who has symptoms is always too late in a care home.

The media is entirely focused on the heroic work of hospitals and the daily statistics that refer only to their challenges. The ailing residents of care have been virtually airbrushed out of statistics and planning. Political will is too weak to collect urgent statistics from homes and to kit out and train up its workers. It’s as if they are considered too old to count as living people, too old to matter. Is this the health service that the soldiers of the second world war envisaged for their children?

If we are wildly grateful to our trained doctors and nurses in equipped hospitals, then how much grateful should we be to carers, working with citizens who are less able to defend themselves from the virus, without enough training and without proper equipment and – let’s say it loudly – without proper pay and recognition.

  • This is what we need:
  • Collection of daily figures to include in the national totals.
  • Immediate furnishing of full protective gear for care workers
  • Testing of all residents now, and daily tests for carers as they come in to work. That’s the only way to shut out the virus and to protect carers too.
  • A big bonus for care workers when this is over.

And importantly, we need a complete change of attitude towards the old. It is not the job of a decent society to de-select old people and leave them and their carers to it. That is not shielding, that is denial of their right to be regarded as equal human beings.

Sue Hackman

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