No hand should go unheld this Christmas: KATE LEE, Chief Executive of the Alzheimer’s Society, knows the agony of being banned from hugging her own mother. Now she makes this emotional plea
The only way my 80-year-old mum Barbara can show me she loves me now is to hold my hand. Her dementia is so advanced that she can’t talk.
I know what she is feeling, though, because she is my mother and I can read emotion in her eyes. And I can see that right now, her heart is breaking — as mine is, and my sister Liz’s, and our father’s.
Because none of us has held Mum’s hand since March.
A few days ago, I went with my 79-year-old dad, Richard, to visit Mum in her care home. On a freezing morning, with our backs to the wind, we waved and shouted to her through a window. She looked lost and bewildered, unable to think why we were stuck on the other side of the glass.
We cried as we told her we loved her. I hope that, somehow, the sight of our faces made a difference.
Kate Lee (pictured): The only way my 80-year-old mum Barbara can show me she loves me now is to hold my hand. Her dementia is so advanced that she can’t talk
Tragically, our story is the same for many thousands of families across Britain. They are on their knees begging to see the people dearest to them, after months with no physical contact at all.
That is why the Daily Mail’s new campaign to ensure that people in care homes do not spend Christmas isolated from their loved ones is so essential, and has the full support of the Alzheimer’s Society.
My parents have been married for almost 60 years. The closest of couples, they have always hugged and shown affection for each other in a thousand ways. It has taken a serious toll on their health to have been denied the chance to hold each other for so many months — and been a constant torment to me.
In March, Dad, Liz and I thought the situation would last for just weeks, and even then we feared the damage it would do. Of course, it has dragged on far longer and for us, like so many families, the results have been devastating.
A few days ago, I went with my 79-year-old dad, Richard, to visit Mum in her care home. On a freezing morning, with our backs to the wind, we waved and shouted to her through a window (pictured)
About 850,000 people in Britain suffer from dementia, a number set to rise in future. Doctors understand that the brain declines faster if people with Alzheimer’s and related conditions are agitated, sad or lonely, or if they are not regularly stimulated by seeing loved ones and other people they may remember.
Every day, we at the Alzheimer’s Society hear from more carers who fear that someone with dementia, starved of human contact during the pandemic, has just given up, refusing food and drink. According to research we have commissioned, 83 per cent of family carers report seeing such tragic deterioration.
Professional carers report that many residents have lost the ability to speak, unable to explain how they are feeling or say when they are in pain.
In more than a quarter of cases, people are refusing to eat and drink enough to keep their bodies nourished.
And as the Mail reveals today, deaths from dementia rose by 52 per cent during the height of lockdown — 5,000 more than would normally have been expected.
Pictured: Kate’s parents Barbara, 80, and Richard, 79
Against this alarming backdrop, desperate relatives of dementia patients have been trying all manner of ways to get through the doors and see their loved ones. Some have taken jobs working in care homes, or even asked to borrow a window cleaner’s ladder so they can say ‘hello’ at an upstairs window.
After my mother went into her care home on the west coast of Scotland last year, my father visited her every day. They had been inseparable since their late teens — he was the lad with the motorbike who fancied himself as a bit of a tearaway, she was the posh girl who lived across the road.
He set his heart on her, married her in 1961 aged 20, and perhaps even now can’t quite believe his luck.
They had three children. My sister Heather died in 2004 of breast cancer and, whether by coincidence or not, Mum started to show signs of deterioration at around that time. She would repeat herself, and her mind wandered.
On holiday with her a few years later, I realised how bad her memory had become and how much Dad was covering for her. Liz and her family, who live close by, did all they could to help but gradually, the stress and sheer work of caring for someone with dementia took its toll on him.
When Mum went to stay in a care home for a fortnight’s respite last year, Dad had to face the truth: that it would be better for both of them if she stayed there. By then, she was finding it difficult to recognise people — but he knew that if he sat with her and held her hand, she would start to remember.
They spent hours looking at photo albums, and Dad talked to her about their life together. Love worked its magic and made them feel better.
The past eight months have been incomprehensible for both of them. Dad understands the importance of keeping coronavirus out of Britain’s care homes but, as a practical man, he is deeply frustrated that solutions have not been found.
He is willing to take as many Covid-19 tests as necessary, and to isolate himself for days to make sure he doesn’t accidentally spread the infection. No one is more determined than him to make sure neither he nor his beloved wife catches the virus.
Yes, the Government has had its hands full this year. But Boris Johnson took power last year pledging to tackle the growing problems of caring for the elderly in this country once and for all.
Now it is all too clear that ministers have failed to grasp how vitally important it is to enable care homes — where 400,000 people live across Britain — to reopen to visitors, for the sake of both the residents and their families.
That is why we are urging the Government to take four crucial steps:
1. Expand the rollout of tests so that designated family members are guaranteed access to care homes and can visit loved ones safely.
2. Give direct funding to care homes so they can buy the protective equipment they need to allow safe visits.
3. End the postcode confusion, with care homes in different counties adopting different rules, and make it clear that all homes should allow visits unless they are in the middle of an outbreak.
4. Work with the insurance industry to find solutions for the concerns care homes have about increases in premiums.
Many scientists now hope that within a few months, a coronavirus vaccine will emerge and be rolled out to those who need it most.
But on average, people spend just 15 months in a care home: the last months of their lives. For them, eight months separated from their families, or forced to wave at them through Perspex screens, has already been far too long.
Doctors cannot give ‘loneliness’ as the cause of death on a certificate but there is no doubt it is a killer.
Loneliness can be cured by something as simple as holding hands. We must make that possible again — and ensure that no hand goes unheld this Christmas.
Please donate to Alzheimer’s Society’s Christmas Appeal at alzheimers.org.uk
The Alzheimer’s Society Dementia Connect Support Line is 0333 150 3456.