Saturday 31 October 2020

Only the lonely: the tragedy of the elderly who are dying alone

This column first appeared in Malta Today

Close your eyes for a few seconds and imagine yourself at 80 years old, alone, in a nursing home, where everything has suddenly and swiftly changed. Doctors have been brought in, a swab test is taken, and you are told you are positive for the dreaded virus which has been in the news all year.   

Fear strikes your heart because you know what the implications are, made worse by the fact that you are suddenly cut off completely from your loved ones who cannot visit, and in some cases, cannot even call you. Your life has been taken over by others who tell you what you can or cannot do, and as you think back at the life you have lived, when you had autonomy and the right to do as you please, you wonder how your twilight years have been reduced to this. 

Covid-19 has turned all our lives upside down, but none have suffered more than the elderly, especially those who are in care homes.  Those suffering with them are undoubtedly their relatives; sons, daughters, nieces and nephews and grandchildren who have been thrown into an bottomless pit of mixed emotions, heartache and anguish.  I read stories every day from people who thought they were doing the best thing by putting their elderly relatives in a care home where they can be taken care of 24/7, but now with Covid-19, this home has turned into something closer to a prison.  

While I am sure that doctors and nurses, as well as carers, are doing their utmost to provide excellent treatment, from information I have received from relatives, there have been instances where the management at a few of the care homes have not been as forthcoming as they should be about what is happening.

St Joseph’s Care Home (Residenza San Gużepp) in particular has been singled out, mostly because it has had the most number of cases, and where for a while the spread seemed to be out of control.  It was never clearly explained just how the virus entered the home, and how and why it spread so quickly. I do not think it is unreasonable to say that the public, especially those who have relatives there, have a right to be given these explanations.

I have been following their FB page, and while they are giving regular updates about the number of recoveries, there has definitely been a breakdown in communication on an individual basis.  Relatives have complained publicly about being unable to speak to their loved ones, and that they do not know what is happening. Providing statistics is one thing, but the personal touch seems to have been lost somewhere along the way.

In one particular case, a son (who has already lost his mother who was residing at this same nursing home) wrote an emotional plea which went viral, part of which I am reproducing here, “Now after the loss of my mum, my dad needs special attention, but requests remain mostly unanswered. Since Monday, we have asked you to get him a doctor (from the seven you keep reporting in the news that are available 24×7 at the residence) to check his physical and mental state…I also have asked so many times for an opportunity to Skype him but you never answered this request either. “

It is heartbreaking to think that this demographic has lived their lives decade after decade, working hard for their families until they reached retirement and looking forward to their golden years, only to face the prospect that they will not be so golden after all.  It makes you wonder what the point of it all is, if people are so easily thrown away by society after a certain age, which seems to think “the elderly” do not merit the dignity and careful attention every human being deserves.  

In another case, a woman told me of having already lost two people from her family who were at this home. Another two who have tested negative have now been transferred to another home, but have been locked in their rooms for two weeks for quarantine, without even a TV set to keep them company. Where is the Government’s responsibility in all this? It makes me ill to think that the money which is often squandered on very frivolous things somehow can never be found where ordinary people are concerned. 

In still another example from the same nursing home, a woman I spoke to was frantic with worry about her father because of the dire lack of communication from the management about his state of mind. For all our talk about mental health awareness,  surely it should be obvious that it is not just the physical aspect which is causing relatives understandable anguish, but the real fear of their loved ones spiralling into a deep depression. Most of all it is the not knowing which is eating away at the families who cannot be in touch with their loved ones. Why was communication shut down at such a sensitive, crucial time? 

As if in answer to this question, late on Friday afternoon the St Joseph’s Care Home posted this statement which I am reproducing in full for fairness sake: “From the onset Residenza San Guzepp has strictly adhered to all protocols and guidelines issued by the competent authorities and has implemented all possible measures to control the spread of the virus, to safeguard the residents’ well-being, and to keep the residents’ relatives informed. While the spread of the virus in the home put a strain on our resources, we are working tirelessly in order to maintain the highest level of care which the residents deserve, and which we have always provided. Although we are in a position to address the specific claims which featured in the Facebook post of a resident’s relative earlier today, we choose to continue to abide by our obligations and respect the privacy of all persons involved. Thus, while we deny any allegations made in that post implying any negligence or shortcomings from our end, we are addressing the matter with the individuals concerned.”    

“Regarding COVID-19 cases in Residenza San Guzepp, we can confirm that we currently have 33 active cases, out of which 5 are hospitalized, while a total of 82 residents have now recovered from the virus. Moreover, only 3 of our staff are currently in quarantine. Staffing levels have also benefited from the fact that some of our residents have been temporarily relocated to another facility.”

This is a positive step forward. During this pandemic which seems to be cruelly targeting those who are old, every effort should be made to have open lines of communication with the relatives, so that they do not have to resort to public FB posts.

As if to make the situation even more agonising, once the health condition of an elderly person takes a turn for the worse, with this virus the deterioration happens very rapidly, often taking everyone by surprise. There is nothing to prepare you for the swiftness of it all, and as if that is not enough, these people are dying alone, no comforting familiar faces around them, and no one to hold their hand as they pass on. I can think of no worse scenario and my heart goes out to all those who have had this happen to their loved ones.  

But even more tragically, once a person dies from Covid-19, the burial too is very quick and clinical, leaving relatives reeling because they are barely able to mourn properly. 

The trauma of the families who are losing their older relatives to Covid-19 does not stop there however, because callous people insist on passing careless remarks about those who are dying every day.  Those who are mourning should get offline for a while to avoid being hurt even further by such heartless comments.  Some are just so devoid of empathy that they do not even merit any consideration, let alone a reply. The sheer inability of some people to have compassion for others, dismissing anyone over a certain age because “they’ve lived long enough”, is a stark indictment of a narcissistic generation. 

I think the Health Dept also needs to realise that by constantly adding the phrase “the patient had other underlying conditions” in every press release, it is adding further salt to the wound.  It is true that contracting a virus like this is exacerbated by the combination of old age together with previous health conditions. But that is of small comfort to those who are left grieving.  

It is undeniable that Covid-19 is wreaking havoc among those who are 80+ (and in some cases even 70+), and no one wants to hear the platitude that, “well they were old, so they were going to die eventually anyway”.  We do not know that do we? For all we know, the 38 people who have died so far (at the time of writing) could have lived for several more years.  In any case, we are all heading for the same destination in the end, so no one is in a position to make quips about those who are old, because none of us are immortal.  

One day, we too will open our eyes and realise that it is us whom society considers as “the elderly”.

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