‘We lock them away to cut risk – and kill them with loneliness instead’: Dr MAX PEMBERTON argues that banning visits to care homes harms vulnerable residents
The heartbreaking image that appeared on the front page of yesterday’s Daily Mail proved beyond doubt that Britain’s shameful treatment of its care home residents needs to end.
Showing a loving wife having to kneel in the street to see her husband’s face through a metal railing, it was yet more disturbing proof that the state of our social care system is nothing short of a national scandal.
Those in care homes are some of the most vulnerable in society.
And yet, as that photograph made clear, they are having to bear the brunt of our response to this virus, sacrificing the twilight years of what little time they have left.
Ever since the lockdown was first introduced, overly cautious managers and health officials have placed unforgivable restrictions on care residents – the results of which, especially among those with dementia, have caused untold levels of distress and anguish.
The heartbreaking image that appeared on the front page of yesterday’s Daily Mail proved beyond doubt that Britain’s shameful treatment of its care home residents needs to end
That is why the Mail’s campaign to reunite residents with their loved ones this Christmas is so crucial.
It provides a voice to the voiceless, standing up for the rights of a group so often sidelined and forgotten.
As an NHS psychiatrist with first-hand experience treating those with dementia, I know fully well just how beneficial such a move would be.
After all, those with dementia are more likely to be confused and scared when isolated from their families. Indeed, tearing them away from relatives is a recipe for deterioration.
I saw this for myself only a few weeks ago when one of my patients, an elderly man with dementia, had to be admitted to hospital after a fall in a care home.
With his wife effectively banned from visiting him, his behaviour became increasingly disturbed and he had to be given sedative drugs.
After his condition severely deteriorated, the nurses did finally accept that keeping him and his wife apart was making things worse and she was finally allowed to visit him on the ward.
Watching them be reunited after so many months was one of the most touching moments of my career.
But make no mistake: they are the lucky ones.
For far more often, care home residents suffering from enforced isolation are left to fend for themselves.
In fact, over the past few months countless readers have written to me, detailing gut-wrenching stories of their loved ones being trapped in nursing homes without any visitors.
Some of the most haunting have been those describing people with dementia who, confused and distressed, plead with their family to come and collect them.
One described how she couldn’t stop crying after speaking to her confused husband, who was convinced he was being held captive. She hasn’t been allowed to see him for three months.
When fear of a virus such as Covid-19 is allowed to devastate the lives of the vulnerable in such a way, surely it is proof that we have lost all perspective? It’s a shameful indictment of how Britain views care home residents, and we have no choice but to find an alternative that allows them to have the face-to-face contact they need.
For ultimately we are social animals and maintaining relationships is a basic, fundamental need we all have.
That’s why Age UK and a significant number of doctors have been warning for months that banning visitors in care homes will result in residents ‘giving up the will to live’.
Following yesterday’s reports that more than 5,000 dementia patients died needlessly during lockdown, their tragic warning appears to have come to fruition.
Certainly there is a bitter irony to the fact that the Government’s attempts to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission could be killing those most vulnerable to it.
Ever since the lockdown was first introduced, overly cautious managers and health officials have placed unforgivable restrictions on care residents. (Stock image)
But more seriously, it is inflicting misery and upset on tens of thousands of people.
This cannot be right. In fact, I believe such an inhumane policy is tantamount to a grotesque abuse of power and surely violates the fundamental human rights of residents and their families.
Only this month, shocking footage was released of an elderly resident being forced into a police car and returned to her care home while her daughter – a registered nurse – was arrested for trying to take her mother home.
There could be no clearer evidence that we are sleep-walking into a cruel world that prioritises officialdom over compassion.
Meanwhile, in other developed countries like France, there are no such draconian restrictions on nursing homes. There, residents are treated like humans – not prisoners.
Of course, Covid-19 is a virulent virus, and we need to protect residents from it.
But if we continue to lock away the elderly and throw away the key, we risk losing something far more important: our humanity.
- Dr Max Pemberton is an NHS psychiatrist