It was supposed to the happy moment Heoward Jeffery saw his mother again after six long weeks of lockdown.
And although he knew they wouldn’t be able to hug and kiss, or sit and hold hands as they’d used to, at least they could chat and catch up.
But his long-awaited reunion with mum Dorothy in her care home in Littlehampton, West Sussex, quickly turned into one of the most distressing moments of his life.
Just weeks earlier the 73-year-old, who was suffering from dementia, would still chat happily, discuss what was going on in the world and had no problems recognising her five children and 13 grandchildren.
But now the once busy mother and former pub landlady was just a shell of herself – she hardly spoke or smiled, and had to be reminded who he was.
Today, deprived for seven months of the regular, love-filled visits from her family she once thrived on, Heoward admits: “Mum’s just not there anymore.”
He says: “The first time I saw her after lockdown I was shocked. She’d gone from being relatively compos mentis to hardly recognising me. After that I would go as often as I could, but every time I saw her she was worse.
“The last time was last week. She was there but not there. I tried to talk to her, with my mask on and behind the screen, but the whole time she was just looking around the room.
“It was almost as if she was uncomfortable with me being there because she didn’t know who I was.
“It’s very upsetting because I’m losing my mum. I get teary after visits, I’m not afraid to say that, she’s my mum, she was my rock. She was always there for me, she gave me so much strength. To see this happening to her is really heartbreaking.”
Tragically, their heartbreaking story is repeated countless times with other families around the country.
And, as our investigation reveals, many families and those working in the care home system fear the new rules may not actually improve things for residents or their families and could even make them worse.
Dorothy’s daughter Angela says she has seen a huge change in her mother too, said: “It’s extremely sad, to have lost her in just six months. Before lockdown she was able to chit chat, we’d have a laugh, she had a naughty sense of humour. But there’s just nothing there now.
“If someone was sitting with her she’d always be stroking your hand or your arm. Now she doesn’t even reach out to make contact anymore.
“We’re a big family and she’s got loads of children and grandchildren. It’s really affecting the young ones, they can’t understand that the nanny they adore doesn’t know who they are any more.”
The family has no doubt that not being able to interact with her family during lockdown caused the rapid deterioration in her mental health.
Heoward said: “The Government could have done things differently regarding vulnerable people like my mum, those people who without a little bit of human contact are going to pay the price. And she is.
“I don’t think they thought about what it would do to people like her. She was just a number.”
Many others feel let down by a Government they say never counted the human cost of care home restrictions on some of the most vulnerable in society, and still are not helping prevent the terrible consequences on their mental and physical health.
They include Jenny Morrison, whose elderly mother Jean suffers from dementia.
Since the start of the pandemic, she and partner Diane Mayhew were only able to see her mum from outside the window of her care home in Waterloo, Merseyside. As cases rose in Liverpool even visits from outside the window were banned.
The couple started the support group Rights for Residents and quickly heard from more than 2,200 other families going through similar experiences.
Diane said: “We saw Jean at the window waving recently and she was heartbroken, she couldn’t stop crying at all. I tried to cheer her up, but she said ‘I’ll never smile again’. Now we can’t see her at all, it’s devastating.”
She said they had been “overwhelmed” by the heartbreaking stories of others.
“It’s not just our story anymore,” she said. “It’s really hard listening to so many other people telling us what they’re going through, you can’t even describe it.
“We’re getting emails almost every day from someone whose parent, wife, husband has passed away. We don’t have time on our side.”
Last week desperate families were given new hope they might finally be able to be with their loved ones again after the Government this week released new guidance for care homes allowing family visits.
But campaigners say the rules don’t go far enough, and might even make regular visits more difficult with safety measures that few care homes will be able to implement.
And they criticised the Government for quietly ditching promises made just a month ago to grant key worker status to families which would allow them access to care homes and testing.
Jenny Morrison believes many care homes will continue to ban visits because the Government still refuses to underwrite their indeminity insurance for Covid, like it does for hospitals.
She said: “The ‘new’ guidelines are no different to the ‘old’ guidelines – they’ve just rearranged the wording.
“There’s no mention of testing relatives or indemnifying care providers from being sued if a visitor takes Covid into a care home. Consequently care providers won’t budge as they’re frozen by fear of litigation.
“Families were so excited when they thought the new guidelines would allow visits. But they soon became disappointed after contacting their own care providers and being told that visits are still banned.”
She added: “The guidelines suggest floor-to-ceiling screens – our loved ones are human beings, not animals. They encourage window visits, but it’s freezing cold.
“They’re buying iPads and tablets, but how will this help those suffering from dementia, or who can’t hear, speak or see? Why has the Government not used this investment on testing relatives?
“In the meantime, people continue to die of loneliness and isolation.”
Julieann McNally, who runs another support group in Northern Ireland, Care Home Advice and Support NI, said she knows of many families who are seeing their loved ones physical and mental health deteriorate.
She said: “Some of the things I’m hearing are just shocking. We have circumstances where families were going along to windows and the impact of having daddy constantly crying out, wanting to touch you, hug you or hold you. The impact of that on families, on grandchildren, is immense.
“For someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s that physical contact stimulates them, to take it away is being detrimental to their physical and emotional wellbeing.
“Now we seeing a lot of care providers shut down their homes completely and stop even window or car park visits.
“Before lockdown, a lot of our families’ loved ones were talking, walking eating, and now they are now not eating, they have lost weight, some are totally immobile in bed, not communicating, and can’t recognise their families at all.
“They have no doubt that this because of so many months without seeing the people who love them.”
Dr Donald Macaskill, the head of Scotland’s care home industry, shares the same fears.
He said: “At the moment, we’re keeping people alive and keeping them breathing but we’re not giving them life.
“One woman I know very well is convinced her husband died of a broken heart. He didn’t contract Covid but he died of the separation and the anxiety and the brokenness.
“Couples who have been married for 58 years are being separated – there’s someone who, at 103, is having to decide which children are allowed in to visit.
“People with dementia don’t understand why their relatives can’t come every day to see them in their rooms. Nothing is more fatal than getting the disease but it is about getting the balance right.”
So what is that balance?
Nadra Ahmed, CEO of the National Care Association, believes that, until the Government agree to underwrite care homes’ insurance policies, the easiest option will be to ban all visits – even though residents’ physical and mental health will suffer.
She said: “The guidance leaves the decision to the provider, and the easiest way of keeping their homes safe is to not enable any visits.
“There is huge anxiety around indemnity insurance, because providers aren’t insured against Covid claims, so aren’t covered to fight a claim in court.
“We’ve called for the Government to underwrite the Covid part of the claim. Hospitals have the indemnity underwritten by Government, but they won’t do it for care homes.”
Care home manager Mark Topps, who runs Little Wakering House in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, agrees that the new guidelines will make the situation worse, not better.
Unlike many homes, Mark has been allowing unlimited Covid-secure visits and before the new rules allowed more than one family member to spend time with their loved one.
But he said: “The new guidance now means that we can’t allow more than one family member to visit. One of our patients who has severe learning difficulties has a visit from both his parents every week, and now suddenly he can only see one at a time.
“For someone with dementia who already doesn’t understand what’s going on, this is going to make things much more difficult.
“A lot of dementia homes are across two or three floors. A bed-bound patient who isn’t on the ground floor won’t be able to get to the garden to see their loved one.
“And as most can’t use technology, video calls are also out of the question. They’ll never get to see the people they love.
“The truth is the guidance doesn’t support care homes, doesn’t support family visits, doesn’t support anybody, because it isn’t fit for purpose.
“Most family members are probably at a much lower risk than half the staff in a care home, so banning visits doesn’t make sense. But many care homes will maintain their ban on visits because it’s easier and less expensive.
“There’s talk of social care not returning to normal for a year or more. It does worry me that if residents can’t see their loved ones for a year or two years, what the impact is going to be on their mental health.”
Meanwhile, families continue to feel helpless and desperately worried about the relatives many can’t see or, in many cases, even speak to.
Campaigners Jenny and Diane are also calling on the Government to grant key worker status to relatives with the same access to tests as care home staff.
Diane said: “Your parents protect you throughout your childhood, they make sacrifices for you, and we feel that it’s our turn now, and we can’t even be there for her.
“We’re on tenterhooks every time the phone rings, is this the call? Is the next time we’re going to see her in a coffin? It’s outrageous, it’s barbaric. Prisoners get more rights than residents of care homes. It has to change.”
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