As I See It: Catherine Drea’s fortnightly column as published in the Waterford News & Star
IT’S taken me a while to even attempt to delve into what happened in nursing homes during the pandemic, or to wonder who is to blame. My Step Mum, May, died as a result of Covid-19, on April 18 last. She was one of ten who died in her private care home in County Meath. She had been there less than a year. After her third bad fall, first two broken hips and then her hand, it became impossible for her to stay in her own home without nursing support.
What if they had known earlier that Covid-19 was present in her nursing home? Or what if they had treated her earlier? Or what if the staff had been locked down earlier? Or sadly, what if she had been able to stay at home and had never been in contact with the virus in the first place?
The story of Ireland’s elders, and their vulnerability to Covid-19, is still to be told, but it’s not all about PPE protection and hand washing. It goes way back, before austerity, when the Fair Deal system was introduced.
‘Besides the horror of May’s death, there is also the scandal of privatising elder care. Long term residential options are very limited. Rooms are like gold dust. Fees are enormous for any ordinary family to fork out.’
Fair Deal is the only option available to older people, who need longer term full-time nursing care. This usually means going into a private sector care home. The alternative, of extending home care, which would have suited our May perfectly, is not supported. This in effect means older people have absolutely no choice to live independently.
By contrast, when my Dad died, before the austerity policies kicked in, he had the loving care of the local nursing team, a HSE funded home care package and was able to top up his care with private carers from Home Instead. All in all, with support from the Home Hospice team, he got his wish to die at home with all of us around him.
I won’t say his last years were without battles. I wrote many letters on his behalf to access all of this support. I was driven onwards by that time when he gripped my hand, looked in my eyes and said, “Don’t ever send me to the County Home”. The County Home, which I don’t think even existed, was to his mind, the same as the worst Poor House of the Great Hunger.
But all that was available to May was private care, or one hour per day, Monday to Friday, from the HSE. Even by topping up the care with Home Instead, which we did, there was no affordable nursing care and after the final fall this was what was needed.
By the time dementia had overwhelmed her, the writing was on the wall. May went into the nursing home “only until she was better.” But there would be no getting better. Aged 93, she settled in to her “new apartment” and apparently got a new job “helping the staff with the old people”.
Ireland let down our older generation by not protecting them adequately during the pandemic. This is true. But it goes back to the situation where older people like May are given no choice but to enter into a nursing home to avail of the scant state support. By the time May died, her widow’s pension and small savings, from a lifetime of careful management, had been depleted. Fair Deal never kicked in for her. She was on the list, her application was approved, but the delays in the system meant that May was paying 100% of the fees, a staggering €1,500 per week! Fair Deal is not backdated. The system punishes you if you own a house, have a small widow’s pension or have a Credit Union Savings Account.
Next would come, selling her modest home or taking out a loan to cover the difference. I don’t think the general public has a clue about negotiating the Fair Deal system, or indeed about the long term options open to someone who simply can’t cope alone.
Besides the horror of May’s death, without the presence of her family, there is also the scandal of privatising elder care in this way. Long term residential options are very limited. Rooms are like gold dust. Fees are enormous for any ordinary family to fork out.
I dread to think about how little her carers and nurses were paid to hold her hand and take her through that long night of Friday, April 18. Three of them stayed with her. But her own family hasn’t been able to meet up to grieve, to chat, to support each other yet. It’s all very much unfinished.
It makes me wonder a lot about my generation. How will we manage our last years? Will we each have to figure out a route through, on our own, depending on our own resources?
It’s a minefield of confusion, and it’s anything but a Fair Deal.