We care more about how people in nursing homes are dying now, than how they were living before Covid-19, says Clodagh Whelan
As the State responds to Covid-19 affecting 30 per cent of Ireland’s nursing homes and Department of Health figures, as of Thursday, showing 245 nursing home residents with the disease have died, social gerontologist Clodagh Whelan writes:
Nursing homes have existed in our communities and cared for our family and friends for many years.
The uncomfortable truth is that we care more about how people in nursing homes are dying now, than how they were living before Covid-19.
Over the past 20 years I have worked with older people and people living with dementia. During my eight years as part of the senior management team of a group of nursing homes, I saw how being under-resourced creates stressed staff and residents.
The lives of the staff and residents are intertwined – they are a family. They share meals, celebrate Christmas and birthdays. They know each other’s stories and struggles and they comfort each other when a member of the family dies.
That family is in trouble now and it’s taken the rest of us a while to notice.
A doctor on television tells us that people are dying in nursing Homes, newspapers are writing about those deaths and radio commentators talk of little else. Suddenly the Twittersphere lights up – we are All in this together.
Like the parent away for too long, arriving home laden with gifts, we scramble to donate to charities supporting older people.
We write letters to people who live in nursing homes, celebrate the staff and organise fundraisers. We ask each other ‘how did this happen’? We are angry and motivated to help.
The narrative that places older people as recipients of our benevolent charity sits well. We are comfortable when our anger can be directed outward and we can blame the HSE, the Government, and the private nursing homes.
We are considerably less comfortable with the fact that older people living in nursing homes are human beings who were largely forgotten by all of us until this crisis.
Never before have the airwaves been so full of discussions on the care of older people.
As we, the general public, bask in indignation, we denigrate politicians and take swipes at private providers. We have the benefit of hindsight but are devoid of responsibility.
Yet, at the recent election, how many of us put the resourcing of care for older people on the agenda?
When the canvassers came to your door did you inquire about the resourcing of your local nursing homes? Did you inquire about the values of the National Treatment Purchase Fund or policy decisions that got us here?
So get angry, demand better care, ask the hard questions of the HSE, the Department of Health, HIQA and Nursing Homes Ireland. But ask them of yourself, too.
When this is all over, will you continue to advocate for quality care for older people and campaign for better conditions and supports for those who work in nursing homes?
People who live in nursing homes are human beings with a right to healthcare, though their address has changed their humanity has not.
We can honour their deaths by ensuring older people are never forgotten again.
Clodagh Whelan is a social gerontologist.