Image credit: Financial Times
It was my first day back to work after 5 months, having returned to my parents' house as universities had shut up and down the country. At 6pm, as we were assisting the residents with their dinner, the national news was on in the communal areas and individual rooms, and we listened to the daily updates about Corona Virus; the usual update from the Government, the latest stats, the numbers dead.
The stories rolled on in the background, food banks being set up here, neighbourhoods and communities coming together through song, musicians and artists performing live on social media, and the usual question of whether there was enough PPE and if this could be sustained. No mention of care homes, it was always “NHS frontline heroes” that was the rhetoric of the media.
I took in where I was again. Everyone was busy getting on with various tasks, tidying rooms, chatting to residents, making cups of tea, assisting with all aspects of daily life. But I could sense a feeling of disparity amongst staff. Are we not important? Is what we’re doing not good enough? Have we been forgotten?
By no means am I trying to include myself in this bracket; I fortunately do not have to work right now. I still have university assignments and exams due next month and am privileged enough to not need to be employed or earn a wage at this current time. I just knew that this industry was feeling the brunt of the effects of COVID-19 and therefore felt I was able to, and therefore should help out in the effort, even if it is just 2 shifts a week.
I then came home, reflected and felt compelled to write something down after my shifts and what I see throughout the day from various different media outlets, even if it is just for my own well-being and sanity.
One thing that rings true through it all is that yet again it is those in less wealthy positions, who are losing out from this virus. This is not some form of leveller. It’s sad, hard and lonely.
Whilst shifts can be filled with joy, love, and care through interaction with residents, it can also be tiring, draining, and incredibly physically demanding. This is all for minimum wage on 12-hour shifts, often with huge staff shortages which mean much more is expected of you than should be required.
These expectations aren’t things like “could you just stay on an extra hour?” or “could you try and get X and Y finished by the end of the day, instead of the end of the week?”. This is not having enough time to sit with residents in their final days or hours, or being expected to wash the bodies of those who have sadly passed away - all whilst ensuring that everyone else is cared for to the highest standards.
Sadly, this is not unusual or unheard of in the care sector, it has just been accelerated by this horrendous situation.
Not only is there an emotional strain, but a financial one too. Staff are more vulnerable to sickness due to the expsosure to the virus, but if they go off sick, they get £94.00 a week from statutory sick pay. This is nowhere near 80% of their wage offered in other areas of work, so they have no option but to come in and risk getting the virus and passing it on to those in their household. They are basically forced to come into keep families fed, but risk a lot to do so.
The ‘protection’ from PPE is limited. The standard PPE carers get (from my own individual experience) is gloves and an apron. This is standard procedure irrespective of COVID-19, and we have continued to change these between each resident as would be the case anyway.
Now however, carers are coming into contact with people who are showing signs of symptoms of the virus. No one, up to my knowledge, is getting tested in care homes, whether this be the carers or the residents. We don’t know if they have it, they don’t know if they have it, we are just having to take precautions.
Often, with such symptoms, if these residents were just at home, they would not be going into hospital. Indeed, they may have the virus but they are not (yet, but hopefully not ever), progressing to the stage whereby serious medical attention or a ventilator would be required.
This is good news, we don’t want more people to require the services of the NHS, and we certainly don’t want this virus to take any more lives. However, my point is those working in care homes, whether this be those from the kitchen, the laundry or from the admin team are dealing day in, day out with people who are contagious, but with very little protective equipment.
Much of the PPE being made is sent directly to the NHS, and unfortunately, despite best efforts, they cannot spare any to go to care homes. Care homes are then forced to privately purchase equipment, but this is again, limited.
Therefore, you are given a mask (hurray), but you are told that on your 12 hours shift you are allowed 2 masks. They work for 20 minutes each. Ah, protection for the first 20 minutes, and for the remaining 340 minutes you are expected to do your best? Hope? Pray?
This isn’t even the worst part. Those who sadly cannot fight the virus and have fallen drastically ill from it are forced to die alone. The nature of it means people often drastically deteriorate, and whilst one member of the family or a friend are allowed in to be there at the end, many either are unable to get there in time or are unable to risk also contracting the virus.
With that, these people who have lived for 70 or 80 years are forced to breathe their last breaths alone, having not seen their loved ones for some time, and are not getting the goodbyes or last words of comfort that they so badly deserve. This causes huge upset, obviously primarily for family members but also carers; those who have been with these people for months and years and who now don’t have the resources to be there when they perhaps most badly require it.
Care homes are not hospices or end of life homes. They are places people have often chosen to go out of the want for company, assistance in getting washed and fed, not places to go before you die. They should not be forgotten or cast aside. There should not be a feeling of “oh well, it was going to happen anyway”. We cannot be “playing God” and deciding when someone’s time is up. They are people, the family of other people, and their voices deserve to be heard.
I’m writing this out of upset, anger and frustration. I can’t fathom what the government and other organisations are having to organise and set up in such a short space of time. But I can’t help but wonder why certain sectors of the same industry are being treated so differently. As donations flood in for the NHS; football club owners offering up their hotels for NHS staff, the ‘run for heroes’ Instagram trend raising millions for our health service and even Harry Potter ‘Knight buses’ being donated to help our NHS staff keep on the move, can more be done for the forgotten branch of this healthcare crisis, the carers?