Quarantined on the forgotten front line: CAROLINE GRAHAM reveals how she was forced to move into her mother’s care home and describes how 400,000 of the most vulnerable are struggling to cope with the coronavirus outbreak
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Today is the 12th day I will wake up quarantined alongside my 89-year-old mother in a single bedroom inside a care home in South-West London.
The walls of the 12ft by 8ft room close in on me. I cannot leave the room for any reason. Anyone who enters has to wear full personal protective equipment.
Our rubbish goes into yellow hazard bags which are sealed and left in the room for three days – the time Government experts say it takes the coronavirus to die – before being taken to be incinerated.
CAROLINE GRAHAM: Today is the 12th day I will wake up quarantined alongside my 89-year-old mother in a single bedroom inside a care home in South-West London (pictured together)
Our towels, bedding and clothes go into sealed bags which sit on the bathroom floor for 72 hours before deemed ‘safe’ to wash in boiling water at the laundry.
But I am not complaining because I am one of the lucky ones.
On March 16, I was 5,400 miles away at my home in Los Angeles, where I work as this newspaper’s US Editor, when I received a call saying my mum Charlotte was gravely ill. I was told to ‘get on a plane immediately’.
By the time I landed, my normally robust mum, who loves to go ballroom dancing twice a week, was in an isolation room at St George’s Hospital in Tooting, fighting for her life.
Barely conscious and struggling to breathe, even with the help of oxygen, she had tested positive for Covid-19.
The doctor immediately asked me to agree to a Do Not Resuscitate order and said that her prognosis was grim.
For two weeks, the outstanding doctors and nurses at St George’s fought to save her life.
I don’t know how I can even begin to thank those heroes who put their own lives on the line to save my mother and hundreds like her.
But Mum and I now find ourselves on the ‘forgotten front line’ of this pandemic – two of 400,000 care home residents, many of whom are struggling desperately to cope.
While Mum’s home in Wimbledon is doing brilliantly – there is no shortage of PPE, food is plentiful and staff have learned each other’s jobs – last week the full horror of Britain’s neglected care home workers and residents emerged.
Fatalities in care homes are not added to the official death toll from Covid-19.
On Friday, experts said the figure already tops 1,000 and that is only the tip of the iceberg.
More than half of care homes are believed to be infected with the virus and the Alzheimer’s Society last week accused the Government of abandoning the frail and elderly by not providing proper PPE, testing or support.
Fifteen residents at one 69-bed home in Luton have died, and another care home in East London has had seven deaths with a further 21 people seriously ill. In the past fortnight, three carers have died.
CAROLINE GRAHAM: My normally robust mum, who loves to go ballroom dancing twice a week, was in an isolation room at St George’s Hospital in Tooting (pictured), fighting for her life
There have been reports of doctors refusing to enter homes, though I have to praise Mum’s physician Dr Smitha Thurairatnam, who immediately came to see us and is making at-home visits to elderly patients despite the obvious risk.
From the moment Mum was released from hospital on March 30 – and 48 hours after coming off oxygen – it became apparent to me that care homes truly are the unsung heroes of this pandemic.
And the most vulnerable. Sharon Swanston, acting manager at Mum’s home, kindly allowed me to move in on March 31.
But under Government guidelines, I had to agree to stay isolated in Mum’s room for 14 days.
Mum was no longer infectious. The problem was me.
I’d been in close contact with her and other Covid-19 patients at St George’s. I’d been coughed on for days. While I am, miraculously, showing no symptoms, I could be a carrier.
There are no daily exercise sessions for me. The room is on the second floor and for safety reasons the window only opens two inches.
I stick my nose out to smell fresh air. Ironically, London is currently hotter than LA and, while I usually love the sunshine, I feel taunted by it.
Mum’s home took swift action after her diagnosis. It was immediately locked down and the 61 residents were isolated in their rooms. But the problems facing carers here and elsewhere are enormous.
One tells me: ‘You cannot expect patients suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia to stay in their rooms. They don’t understand.’
Physiotherapist Naomi Flood, the brilliant woman who gauged Mum’s declining condition and raised the alarm, says: ‘Carers often don’t have the training nurses and other medical professionals have and it’s going to be very difficult for care homes to contain this unless they have adequate PPE and carers are appropriately trained in clinical hygiene.
‘You may also have people with dementia and Alzheimer’s that could deteriorate because they rely on family contact to maintain cognition and communication skills.
‘I’ve seen first hand the fantastic work carers are doing in very difficult circumstances.’
The staff at Mum’s home come from all over the world – the Philippines, Ghana, Spain and Brazil.
Carers, considered ‘unskilled’ workers, are paid considerably less than trained nurses. Watching them up close is humbling.
They change adult nappies, brush hair and cut nails. It is hard work but they do it with a constant smile: ‘When I care for your mum it’s like I am doing it for my own,’ says one carer whose mother lives a continent away.
Another carried on working even though two close family members were in hospital with Covid-19.
On Wednesday, she said she was going home because one of those relatives had died.
The pain was etched on her face as she said how agonising it was not to be there during her loved one’s final moments. Care homes are, of course, used to dealing with the end of life. But coronavirus is different.
The speed with which it has torn through the sector is terrifying. Care England, the industry’s governing body, estimates the final death toll will be in the thousands.
Ms Swanston says: ‘Our job is up close and personal. It’s what we do. Our residents rely on us even more as no family members are coming in. We’ve arranged FaceTime calls. Our activities staff have been doing one-on-one visits in rooms and trying to get residents out into the sunshine. Morale is high. But I won’t lie, it’s been tough.’
The carers I talk to travel by bus, which raises anxiety considerably as they worry not only about giving Covid to loved ones but know if they bring it into the home, it could be devastating.
Nine London bus drivers have died so far. Worried relatives, banned from entering the home, call constantly.
‘We make time for all of them. We’re doing everything we can to connect residents with the outside world but we’re pushed to our limit at a time that’s confusing and troubling for anyone, let alone the elderly,’ Ms Swanston explains.
The company which owns this home has given up waiting for the Government to provide testing. It has paid for test kits expected to arrive any day. Mum is slowly getting better.
When friends ask if I am going nuts confined to one room, I say it would be far worse if I could not be with her.
I can’t imagine the pain and stress other families must be going through not being able to see their loved ones, potentially for many more weeks to come.
As I write this, Mum is sitting in a chair and has just enjoyed a banana smoothie – unthinkable just a couple of weeks ago when I was told to prepare for the worst. We are the lucky ones.
But my own experience of being on the forgotten front line makes me realise the Government must act now.
It needs to provide PPE, test kits, financial aid and support – before it’s too late.
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