In an average April in England and Wales there are about 8,400 deaths in care homes. This April there were 18,000. But only 8,000 of them included Covid-19 on the death certificate. It is a horrifying statistic. In Scotland the situation is even worse, with up to 60% of Covid-19-related deaths being in care homes. Why has this happened and why does it matter?
This is an important issue not just for the UK but also for the rest of the Western world, where deaths in care homes have been significant. Care homes are particularly dangerous because the close contact of residents increases the risk of infection; carers can spread the infection without proper protection, and the elderly often have underlying diseases which makes them particularly vulnerable. More than one third of Covid deaths in the UK have been of the over 85s (just 2% of the population). Over 60% of those in care homes are over 65.
Now, when I heard all this I was ready to write a wee rant about how care homes are just Granny farms, where ruthless private operators seek to make profits out of families who just want to dump Granny and Granddad. That is a common perception. But it is a caricature - and like most caricatures, whilst it contains a degree of truth, it is largely false. I asked an 'expert' – an excellent former care home manager who provided me (and you) with the following helpful information – which although it refers specifically to Scotland, can I am sure be applied elsewhere.
Care homes generally provide far better environments for older people who are unable to stay at home and who do not need the acute medical care that hospitals provide. Sixty-four per cent of residents in care homes in Scotland have some degree of dementia. They are not 'dumped'. They are in the most suitable environment. In general the care inspectorate has set good standards which are well enforced – unlike hospitals! The staff, though often underpaid, (politicians standing and clapping in front of the cameras does not really make up for that!), generally aim to provide a homely environment. They get to know residents well and so provide a consistency of care.
The big problems, though, are with funding and recruitment. It is noticeable and sad how many churches have pulled out of care home provision – largely for financial reasons. Scottish Care would strongly argue that the government do not pay the true cost of care for state-funded residents. Back in 2010, they were paying £464 a week to private care homes for state-funded residents but £800+ to local authority homes for the same people. There was no evidence of a superior standard of care being given by the local authority homes. There are few local authority homes left now, as they are not considered viable.
Care homes are not Granny farms but they are under resourced and overlooked, and as always there are some private operators who push for the biggest profit margin.
The big issue with Covid is what happened (throughout the UK) when the crisis was about to hit. The NHS in the UK is treated like a religious object of worship. That's why we have the slogan 'protect our NHS'. In order to 'save' the NHS, older people were removed from hospitals and put into care homes. Some were 'bed blocking' and were waiting to be moved anyway. The policy in and of itself was not bad. But the way it was carried out was callous and scandalous.
Elderly people were moved from hospitals, the place where they were most likely to contract Covid, into care homes without being tested. Neither UK nor Scottish governments increased support to care home providers. They were so busy saving our NHS because the emphasis was placed on deaths in hospitals. For several weeks at the beginning of this crisis, deaths in care homes were not even recorded in the Covid figures.
Having 'saved' the NHS through lockdown, we now have a high rate of Covid deaths and astronomical economic damage - with the fall out from that yet to really hit. Instead of testing and shielding the vulnerable (the South Korean and Swedish approaches – although the latter too have been hit hard by deaths in care homes and admit they have failed in that) we reduced testing and exposed the most vulnerable to the greatest risk.
It's easy to be wise after the event. It's easy to make comments about what should have been done when you don't have the responsibility for making the call. I have every sympathy with our political leaders who have been faced with this unprecedented situation. But it is also easy to shut our eyes to the injustice and cruelty which does not directly affect us, but does have a significant impact on the weakest and most vulnerable in society.
The Christian church is rightly concerned about the 'right to life' of the youngest members of society, the unborn child. We must be just as concerned about the right to life of the elderly. I write this in a week where my mother has just turned 85. Who knows whether she may yet have 20 years of life to give to her family, church and society? How dare we determine that the elderly are less worthy of protection and life than any other generation?
I hope that out of this whole mess we will take a more biblical attitude towards our elderly people – not least because hopefully one day we will join them.
Consider these verses:
James 1:27 - "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."
1 Timothy 5:8 - "Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever."
Leviticus 19:32 - "Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the LORD."
Isaiah 46:4 - "Even to your old age and gray hairs, I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you."
Galatians 2:10 - "All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along."
Let us ensure that we look after our parents and grandparents. Let us make sure that care homes are adequately resourced. Perhaps the church could think about getting more involved in the business of care? Above all let us honour the Lord by honouring our elderly people, and not regarding them as 'out of sight out of mind' or 'unproductive members of society'. They are blessings, not burdens. May we reflect the attitude of God in all of this.
David Robertson is director of Third Space in Sydney and blogs at www.theweeflea.com