Lancashire relatives of elderly people in care homes reveal fear that loved ones will feel 'abandoned'
Relatives of elderly people in care homes have spoken of their fears that their loved ones will feel "abandoned" due to the lack of family visits.
Face-to-face contact has been restricted in homes as part of ongoing measures to combat the spread of Covid-19.
Several care homes have told the Post of the great lengths they have gone to help relatives keep in touch with residents, including Skype calls and garden visits.
But one man has shared his heartbreaking fear that his 96-year-old mother will forget who he is.
Neil Watson, of Cheddar Avenue in Blackpool, had planned to visit his mum Joan at Broadway Nursing Home last week until it went back into lock-down - and has not been able to see her since March 14.
The 65-year-old said: "I've never gone this long without seeing her. It's really difficult.
"She hasn't seen me in five months, so will she even recognise me?
"I've been used to seeing her four or five times a week while she's been at the care home and I've tried everything I can to make her life comfortable but I'm worried about her. Five months is a long time. It's really getting me down.
"I'm not trying to blame the nursing home. The staff want to keep the residents as safe as possible until Boris Johnson says they can open up. They are brilliant with my mum but it's so frustrating.
"I can ring her but she's as deaf as a post so there's not much point in calling. If it's a nice day they could wheel her out in the garden and ask visitors to wear face masks. They can always take our temperatures and make sure we're OK before we enter the garden. But that doesn't seem to be an option."
After developing dementia, Joan moved into Broadway Nursing Home in early 2017 as it is close to her son's house.
"I know staff are busy looking after residents so I don't want to be ringing up every day asking how my mum is. All I've got is them saying she's OK. We can take that as gospel but it's not the same as seeing her," Neil added.
He also worries about the emotional impact on people like his mum who struggle to understand the pandemic.
"She has always said to me, 'Please don't abandon me," he said.
"She must feel abandoned.
"I think the staff are just being very careful because of the amount of Covid-19 deaths.
"But I'm at a loss and I can't do anything about it.
"I don't know if there's an answer to this issue or not but questions need to be asked.
"Because I'm wondering if I'll ever see my mum alive again."
This devastating deterioration during the pandemic in residents with conditions like dementia is something that Christine Wilkes, manager of Highcliffe Rest Home in Preston Road, Whittle-le-Woods, has seen for herself. And she says it is also difficult for staff to maintain social distancing without upsetting residents who do not understand the guidelines due to memory loss or confusion.
But it is not just those with health conditions who are struggling emotionally, according to Christine.
"The saddest example [at our home] is a lady whose husband used to come often to sit with her or take her out. I think they've been married for more than 50 years so it was probably hard on them that she came into care in the first place," she said.
"He's been to her window but it's almost like they've been forced to separate. That's the worst one we've seen."
She adds that people are also missing friendships that have been struck up with other residents while visiting their loved ones.
Kim Sharples, manager of Coote Lane Care Home in Lostock Hall, says her workplace has so far staved off any Covid-19 infections thanks to lock-down restrictions - but it has come at a cost to some residents' mental well-being.
Kim said: "We're seeing more depression and low moods in people who are not seeing their family or friends. That's been a real struggle."
Knowing the dangers of loneliness, both Kim and Christine say their staff have been helping people to keep in touch with their loved ones via Skype, phone and Facetime calls. They have also posted messages on WhatsApp and Facebook, and allowed socially distanced visits both in the garden and in a designated room with screens and a face mask policy.
"We had garden visits and could see moods lifting until we were locked back down due to the rise in Preston cases. We keep people connected via technology but it's just not the same as seeing someone face-to-face," Kim said.
Despite their best efforts, social media and digital technology are simply minefields for many residents.
"Some people have struggled to use Facetime. They look and smile at their loved ones on the screen as if they're looking at a photograph," said Christine.
"We also have residents who are 100-years-old, so their children are elderly as well and are shielding or don't understand how to use Facetime."
Those receiving end-of-life care, however, are excluded from the ban on visitors in both nursing homes. Measures include a special screen to divide family and residents in their bedrooms, and entry via back gates or the fire door to stop guests from entering communal rooms, while gloves, masks, aprons and hand sanitiser must all be used.
Christine said: "It'll be some time before families can come and go as they please. The exception is end-of-life care. Family can come and sit with them but they can't stay for long."
And it's not just the residents and their relatives who are struggling with the restrictions.
Kim says that staff shortages due to ill or vulnerable workers needing to self-isolate has brought added pressure.
"Staff have been stressed but everyone is pulling together," she added.
But it's also having an emotional toll on workers who have become close to both residents and their loved ones.
As Christine said: "We treat residents like part of our family. Some of them have been here nearly 10 years and not being able to put your arm around them is difficult. We miss giving them a kiss on the cheek."
But perhaps more painful is the loss of close contact with someone whose loved one has died or is receiving end-of-life care.
"We all get on really well with the relatives. We'd normally be quite tactile and give them a hug," Christine said.
"We've recently had a gentleman pass away. We let his family come in but normally we'd be holding their hands. It's like contact has been cut off.
"It's really strange, like something has just disappeared, and getting it back is going to be hard."
Testing in care homes
The Government now requires nursing home staff to be tested weekly and residents monthly following the alarming results of the Vivaldi 1 study of almost 9,000 managers. It identified higher levels of the virus among care staff, particularly among temporary workers employed in multiple settings. The study suggests that care home staff may be at increased risk of contracting the virus, which they may then pass on to others, even if they have no symptoms.