CHERISHING our care homes has never been more important – after all, they will be where many of us end our days.
Yet with lonely and depressed residents being driven to the depths of despair and overworked staff paid appallingly low wages, Britain's care system is fast becoming a national tragedy.
Perhaps it is because we find it hard to contemplate our own old age and death as a society that we're not giving them the attention they desperately need.
Perhaps, too, it's because the state pays for our health, through the NHS, but not our growing old.
Instead, care homes depend on a mix of private businesses, local councils and charities to keep going. It means they're under more strain now than ever.
And, not surprisingly, the result is a mixed bag of provision that makes the job of being a carer less than the career it should be: something that young people can sign up for and flourish in throughout their working lives.
'Care homes must be given priority'
In these difficult times, carers are having the worst of all worlds.
They should have the status and love we give to our nurses. Like the NHS, the care sector should be a major commitment of government.
Matt Hancock has given a snippet of hope this week by announcing that he hopes to have testing for visitors in place for all care homes in England in the next few weeks.
Now, he must deliver.
For months, these residents have been forced to go long periods of time without a single visit from their loved ones – and on the rare occasion they've managed one, they've been unable to hug or hold hands.
For the more vulnerable of them, the best they have had is a wave through their window from their families.
Look at the woman who was arrested after trying to remove her 97-year-old grandmother from a care home before the second lockdown.
'They've been thrown into a bewildering and frightening world'
Both residents and carers are struggling to make sense of ever-changing Covid rules.
Residents, having been denied contact with families, feel isolated and depressed.
Meanwhile, carers are often paid shockingly low wages and expected to work difficult and demanding hours. No wonder there is a high turnover of staff, which makes it hard for bewildered residents to know who’s looking after them.
Some of them are becoming depressed, withdrawn, even refusing food. The situation then spirals into problems and frustration for their carers who do their best in worsening circumstances.
I make a special plea for residents who have learning difficulties and autism. Martin Green, the chief executive of Care England, declares they are being “entirely forgotten".
I agree. I know personally how such people are often nurtured and cherished by loving families and helped to function by their continued attentive care.
To be suddenly deprived of the company of families, even any visits at all, is to be thrown into a bewildering and frightening world. Some of them are becoming depressed, withdrawn, even refusing food.
The situation then spirals into problems and frustration for their carers who do their best in worsening circumstances.
And it won’t be a situation from which residents will easily recover when the crisis passes.
They could remain bewildered and mistrustful while the rest of us bounce back. The long-term impacts will be monumental.
'Care workers must be at the front of the queue for testing'
Risks to frail residents are also particularly high when staff come and go from their homes, taking public transport, possibly picking up the virus – something many of them can't avoid.
Therefore, care workers must remain at the front of the queue for testing and regular testing going forwards.
Protective equipment too must keep being directed first to care homes where so many frail and dependent old people are at the mercy of the world around them.
We need to make carers our heroes. Let's offer them a career structure, the opportunity to progress, security of tenure, and the full living wage.
It's also time we had a member of the Government made exclusively responsible for social care.
Let's have career advisers offering jobs that give security, personal reward and a status in society too.
Remember, carers will one day be helping you and me to dress and clean your teeth, cut up your food and drink your cocoa.
We owe them so much more.
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