If for a moment could sum up the heartbreaking misery of it all, this probably was it. It’s about 11:30 am on a gray November morning and my 90-year-old grandmother is hurtling down the A303 to Cornwall, terrified.
Gwen Hyde, a widow and former psychiatric nurse adored by her family, has late-stage dementia to the point where she struggles to put together a coherent sentence. Yet here she is tied up in the middle of a wheelchair taxi with an unobstructed view of the trucks approaching her in the opposite lane.
It’s a good thing she can’t see the dials on the taxi dashboard. The driver, who turned out to have arrived after a late night for a different job, barely pays attention to the 70 mph speed limit. In fact, he seems to be falling asleep any moment, and my aunt, who has been diligently caring for her mother for years and visiting her as Alzheimer’s has worsened, is forced to shake the man and ask him to slow down.
Dementia may have robbed Gwen of her words, but her wide eyes and grimace speak plainly enough: this is hell on earth.
Memories: Dan Hyde with his grandmother Gwen, now 90 years old, a widow and former psychiatric nurse, long before she was hit by Alzheimer’s
Why, you may ask, does someone of her advanced age and ill health go through such an ordeal in the midst of a pandemic? I’m afraid the clue is in the question. The corona virus is now having the devastating effect that it is pushing healthcare institutions against the wall.
And that means families are facing another disaster to end this grueling year: vulnerable residents like my grandmother are thrown out at the worst possible time and forced to find a new home.
In Gwen’s case, her nursing home in Surrey, quite unexpectedly, sent us a letter at the end of October with a “proposal for closure.”
The news, it acknowledged, would “ shock and distress all concerned. ” It noted that urgent repairs to an outdated elevator and the hot water and heating system threatened to cause “ significant inconvenience to residents, ” adding that “ in the current circumstances [having workmen in to carry out repair work] would not be appropriate ‘.
But perhaps more tellingly, it also revealed that only 25 of the 37 bedrooms were occupied after 11 deaths since April – nearly one in three of the residents.
Nursing home insiders say this is at the heart of a recurring crisis across the country. As the death toll among nursing home residents has risen – between March 20 and the end of October, between March 20 and the end of October, according to reports from last week 86,566, regardless of cause – fewer families than usual are moving family members into the rooms that are being abandoned.
Not only do families want to hold out until a vaccine makes care homes a safer environment, Covid rules don’t allow them to view properties before signing up – and they’ve been told they won’t be able to visit their loved ones to help them settle down, according to our sources.
But when nursing homes cannot fill their beds, it poses a serious problem for owners.
Contrary to popular belief, many nursing home operators have very thin profit margins. Despite astronomical annual fees, averaging around £ 33,000 per inhabitant, most nursing homes have almost every room occupied to cover their costs.
The blame for this predicament, which lies at the door of greedy private investors and woefully inadequate public funding, is a topic for another time. Suffice to say, nursing homes destroyed by Covid-19 are now out of money.
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Take the Newfield nursing home in Sheffield as another example. It made headlines in October as one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, with 25 people dying with Covid-19 and more than 110 residents and staff testing positive. Now it is closing for good.
A total of 275 healthcare facilities were closed between January and early August. According to researchers Laing Buisson, that was more than the figure for the whole of 2019.
Still, industry sources have told me that the rapid spread of the virus in some care homes only reflects half the story.
According to data from the Office for National Statistics, just under a third of deaths in care homes since March have been linked to the coronavirus. Meanwhile, deaths from other causes, including dementia, are much higher than normal.
It is true that at my grandmother’s nursing home, an employee revealed to us that only two out of 11 people who died had actually contracted Covid-19. The rest, she explained, just gave up on life. “So many were ahead of their time,” she said, her voice choked with emotion. Because no one was allowed to visit them, they could not see their loved ones. They just couldn’t understand the isolation and some of them stopped eating and drinking. ‘
As regular readers will know, The Mail on Sunday has been warning for months of the damage caused by the inhumane ban on nursing home visits. We received a deluge of letters from readers reporting serious deterioration in the health of their loved ones according to rules often described as barbaric.
Julia Jones, co-founder of the John’s Campaign for Improved Visitors ‘Rights, said it best when she told us,’ These are not visitors, these are husbands and wives 60 or older, and children.
‘What’s really important is that people in the last months of their lives can be together with the people who make their lives worth living. That is what counts.’
Happy days: a radiant Gwen with her new husband Bert on their wedding day in 1950
Well, ministers can now add “sudden closures of care homes” to the list of distress caused by the incarceration of frail older persons and refusing contact with the children and grandchildren who give them reason to continue.
For their part, the staff at my grandmother’s former nursing home in Surrey are furious about the situation. They have been among the true heroes on the front lines of Britain since this nightmare began in March.
The ones who took care of my grandmother cannot be faulted. But they are now losing their jobs, in some cases after decades of devoted service, and can only sadly watch as the residents they have cared for are plunged into the unknown.
If you haven’t had to move a person with dementia from one care home to another, it may be difficult to imagine what pain it could cause. For our family, the only realistic option was to move my grandmother to Cornwall, closer to where my aunt lives – hence that terrifying wheelchair taxi ride we would have liked so badly.
Other families affected by closures can find solutions more easily, while in extremis the municipality can intervene.
But studies have shown that any major change in the environment can cause rapid deterioration in people with dementia. In fact, the experience is so common that medical experts in the US have labeled it: transmission trauma.
My grandmother is safe in her new home. But disturbing to us, she no longer lives up to her own name and has eaten less than usual since the move. It’s another reason why last week’s news that Health Secretary Matt Hancock is finally working on a test plan to allow nursing home visits at Christmas couldn’t come soon enough.
But I just can’t help but think that, with a little more urgency, my grandmother’s traumatic move – and the uproar for other families in a similar boat – could have somehow been avoided altogether.