Stuart Ballan
Businessman, dad, published author, cyclist

Care Homes Matter Too

Bankfield Care Home - Where residents always come first (Photo: Stuart Ballan)

It took an ageing mother, her move to a care home, and the challenges COVID-19 created for care homes, to make me understand how much care homes matter.

I totally get it that the majority of people limit their interests and knowledge to local, rather than global matters; ones that personally touch them and the lives of their close family and friends. So most Brits won’t have much knowledge or interest in today’s problems in Somalia or human rights abuse in China; most Americans will have little interest in the conflicts in the Middle-East; and globally, educating future generations about the holocaust is at risk of rapidly fading.

Which brings me onto the subject of health and healthcare.  Whilst we’re healthy, there’s not really much need to think about hospitals, home care and care homes, unless of course, you “touch” it yourself either directly or through the sufferings of close relatives or friends.

And I’m no different. Over the last few decades, I’ve done my fair share of hospital visits and funerals for the same reasons that many of you probably have. But, thankfully, I’d never had the need to truly experience the healthcare system, meaning rehabilitation centres, home care services and residential care homes remained an unexplored mystery.

The National Health Service (NHS)

Over recent years, things changed. An elderly mother, a few serious falls, and fate immersed me into the hospital, home care and residential care home process. I’m still immersed in it, because so is she, and it’s because her life has been saved by her care home staff, (read on), that I was so inspired to write this article.

The “journey” started a year ago, in the capable hands of the UK’s NHS. The dedication of the hospital staff was remarkable, and they deserved all the applause, recognition and donations that recent global circumstances have triggered. When my mother needed them, and she did, they were wonderful.

Rehabilitation and Home Care

Yet I’ve always known, from previous experience, that NHS hospital staff perform miracles in an imperfect, resource and budget constrained environment.  However, it’s what happens next, when patients are discharged from hospital but aren’t well enough to go home, that became my new education. Such patients often go into temporary rehabilitation centres (often care homes with allocated space for temporary residents); less medical environments, to recover enough to go home. And once home, home carers visit up to 4 times a day, doing all the things most of you don’t want to or can’t do, to try to support the “patient” back to independence.

The clock ticks, time moves on, and for some it becomes too dangerous to live at home, so leaving the family home for good, for a residential care home, becomes the only safe solution.

All carers are equal, but some carers are more equal than others

And it’s the home care and care home experience that up until recently, was a “black hole” for me.  But not now.

I had the privilege to meet people who every day arrived to work with the same energy as if it was their first day, looking after residents (don’t call them patients!) with extreme physical and mental issues, with all their hearts; residents who mostly are going only in one direction.

What I experienced, and found myself talking about to friends, family, and of course to my mum, was the new found respect I have for all of these carers, encompassing NHS hospitals, rehabilitation centres, home care, and care homes.

I saw all as equal, bringing their unquestioned dedication, smiles, skills and experience to do their utmost for the patients and residents.

Yet, if George Orwell would have written “Care Farm” instead of “Animal Farm”, he would have written “All carers are equal, but some carers are more equal than others”.

It was the sudden realisation that there were significant gaps between the positioning and benefits of different categories of carers that also fuelled this article. Because even though from a patient/resident perspective all these different types of carers are as good as each other, from a government perspective, it seems that’s not the case at all.

Care home staff are not treated the same as NHS staff:

  • Whilst NHS staff rightfully enjoyed 10 weeks of the nationally encouraged public weekly applause, who was explicitly clapping for the care home workers, tending the elderly as the applause seeped into their care homes every Thursday at 8pm?
  • And with hundreds of thousands of UK homes displaying beautiful and well justified “thank you NHS rainbows” in the windows, drawn and painted mostly by children, who was educating the children to also appreciate care homes, where care home staff were protecting the lives of their grandparents’ generation; swimming against the death toll tide, as many articles have confirmed, and as discussed below?
  • With NHS staff getting well-deserved early morning priority access to supermarkets, what about the care home workers, facing their own 12-hour work day, being told to join the back of the queue, because their ID badges were not NHS ones?
  • With public articles reporting care homes as last in the queue for PPE equipment and more, it pained me to read on Skynews that most of the faulty, out of date masks that had to be recalled had been sent to care homes.
  • And then there’s the subject of pay grades. It seems that care home workers are paid significantly less than NHS workers.

Whether you’re in the UK, the USA, Israel and beyond, the press is full of articles about the disproportionate percentage of Covid-19 deaths coming from care homes. Israel reported 25% of deaths, the UK, up to 40%, and the USA, Spain, France and more reported similar jaw dropping statistics.

And as a son, with a mother in a care home, the fear mounts and grows every day, that perhaps the care homes are some sort of death trap; with the lives of many elderly residents curtailed not just by an invisible virus that could have featured in a science fiction movie, but also, sadly, by the inefficiencies; the lack of responsibility, and the bad decision making of those who will see the results only within an impersonal graph or table of statistics.

During Covid-19 lockdown, care homes are (or should be) analogous to sealed “black boxes”.  Everything going in and out is highly controlled.  So it only needs the proverbial door to be left ajar ever so slightly, and only once, and Covid-19 can sneak in, sentencing many elderly residents to an early death.  Key to care homes having been able to keep Covid-19 out include when they decided to close, ie “seal” their own black box. Did they wait for the government guidelines, or make local decisions in the interest of saving resident’s lives?  What processes did they put in place to minimise the risk of the virus entering the care home?  How much did the carers sacrifice to keep the residents alive?

Only Euthanasia is Illegal

Yet, as widely reported in the press, hospitals were releasing patients to care homes, most shockingly, often without Covid-19 testing, sealing the fate of many innocent care home residents who had been safe until then. In a world where euthanasia; the taking of one’s own life, is illegal in but a handful of countries, what gives any government the right to effectively end the lives of others; of people they know not by name, but as a blip on a graph or hidden within a number in a table of statistics? And why isn’t the government accountable for either not preventing, or for effectively authorising those deaths?  It’s not that it’s a hushed up secret. The global press loudly spelled it out to the world.

Having nowhere else to send such patients is not an acceptable excuse for sacrificing the lives of others.

Bankfield Care Home

When my mother moved to Bankfield Care Home, Bury, near Manchester, last October, Covid-19 was still months away from making global headlines. During that non-Covid-19 period, I learned to highly respect and admire all the staff, for their remarkable dedication for looking after my mother, and all the other residents. A special team, dedicated to selflessly helping others. I was truly humbled.

And then Covid-19 reared its ugly head.

Marie Sharp, (Bankfield’s Manager), Sarah McDougall (Bankfield’s Deputy Manager), Sandra Styles, (Bankfield’s Senior Carer) and their extended teams,  immediately went into overdrive, with a management decision to close and seal Bankfield to all but staff a full 3 weeks before the government instructed care homes to “close their doors”.  Absolutely everyone at Bankfield switched to being on a mission to keep Covid-19 out, with many staff making huge additional personal sacrifices of not seeing family members for months, working thankless hours to cover for other staff members even being suspected of being ill in any way, and some even adding a little Dettol to their own laundry, “just in case”.

Visitors sit outside, having passed a temperature check, about 3m from their loved ones, sitting inside the main building, with table, chair and more cleaned between visits. (Photo: Stuart Ballan)

When the hospitals were spilling untested patients into care homes, Bankfield refused to take them, knowing that doing so, would most likely undo all their massive investment and sacrifice of previous months, measured by extremely ill and dead residents.

Nothing to do with luck

There was a time I thought that both my mother and I were lucky that she’s still alive, because today, Bankfield remains only one of two care homes in their town to have kept Covid-19 out. But in retrospect, it’s not about luck. It was about the quick, considered and hard decision making of the management, and the determination and total commitment of all the staff to ward off the death virus. So let’s be clear here, Care Home staff were proactively saving lives, and doing so under the most testing, trying, unequal circumstances.

So many care homes suffered significant deaths from Covid-19 that less commitment from the Bankfield team would have perhaps gone unnoticed in the big picture, with the death count aggregated into the UK’s care home totals, causing at most, a slight movement in the published government graphs and statistics. Yet, Bankfield’s management and staff were on, and still are on a mission to beat the global gloomy care home death rate statistics.

The Daily Mail didn’t see it

Pubs reopened in the UK on Saturday, 4th July at 6am (yes, 6am!). The next day, predictably, the press was full of reports of packed pubs, spilling out to overcrowded streets, and with all the legacy issues of drunks. So whilst the population has to figure out the ever changing rules of what can and can’t be done; social distancing, mandatory mask wearing, maximum group gathering sizes, etc, all the investment of the last months home isolation was risked by the opening of pubs, where rules were broken directly proportional to the amount of alcohol consumed.

And before you judge me as an old fart, not understanding the nation’s desire to eat, drink and be merry, let’s return to Bankfield care home to calibrate things.

The Daily Mail published a short letter from Marie Sharp, Bankfield Care Home’s manager, related to the challenges care homes are facing in light of the Covid-19 on 7th April. Nice. Yet, the headline letter, boasting 60% of the page, 8 times the column space of Marie’s letter, was from a pub landlady, documenting life with a closed pub. If the public prefers to read about a pub with closed doors rather than what’s happening to our elderly in care homes, then what have things come to? But realistically, it’s the Daily Mail that missed a trick here, because if their letters editor would have had the vision to understand the potential scoop that landed in his or her email, that editor could have interviewed Marie, and replaced the pub feature article with an education as to inequalities and unnecessary deaths in care homes.  What a missed opportunity.

The MP for Bury North saw it

The above being said, one man has been waving the flag for care homes for some time.  James Daly, MP for Bury North, (the town my mother’s care home is in), has been banging the care home drum for some time.

At a speech in the House of Commons, London, on 25th June, Mr Daly singled out Bankfield Care Home, saying “we shall forever be in the debt of kind, compassionate, caring individuals such as Marie Sharp, the manager of Bankfield care home.”

Trust and knees

Whilst many care home residents enjoy family visits, sadly, some are abandoned by close family members, leaving the brunt of the enormous responsibility to care home staff and other relatives (Photo: Stuart Ballan)

For sure, “trust” is a word I’d always associate with care homes. We “send” our elderly relatives there, often to live out their remaining days, trusting they will be well cared for, so that we can return to our “normal” lives. Of course, many relatives, continue to visit their loved ones, investing their time and emotions, bringing the little comforts, listening to the woes, wiping the tears, and hopefully, seeing the smiles. But there are far too many cases of adult children and families abandoning their parents and relatives, leaving the remaining days of the elderly to the full responsibility of the care home workers.

It’s only because unfortunately, I’ve had to experience this care home journey first hand that I’ve learned to appreciate the immeasurable responsibility and dedication of care home workers. Yet I’ve also learned about the inequality, and their lower governmental status and priority, as discussed above.

So in an era in which we go down on one knee to respect “Black Lives Matter”, before you stand up, switch to the other knee, to remember too that care home workers are fighting an unrecognised battle to save the lives of our elderly, and shout out loud that “Care Homes Matter too

About the Author
Originally from England, Stuart Ballan moved to Israel in 1997. He has over 25 years business and B2B sales experience working in companies of every size, including his own. Stuart holds an MBA from the Kellogg-Recanati Executive MBA program and was the President of the Kellogg-Recanati Alumni Club from 2002 to 2012. He's dad to 2 great adult kids, and is the author of 2 children's books, with his first book selling 10,000 copies, here in Israel. He's also a keen off-road cyclist.
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