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State should be ashamed for not prioritising nursing homes

Comment & Opinion

VULNERABILITY KNOWN  Why were our elders not top of the list when pandemic struck?

WITH the sun shining and the beaches and parks of County Mayo and beyond becoming veritable Mediterranean resorts, it is easy to forget that we are living in the midst of a pandemic. It is easy to forget it is still lurking in clusters throughout our communities: that it has wreaked devastation amongst our most vulnerable communities.   
It is easy to forget too about the 900-plus elders of our society who have died from the virus in nursing homes across the country. Just over a week ago, on May 25, figures showed that there were 254 clusters of coronavirus in the country’s 580 nursing homes, and of the 1,606 people who had died from Covid-19 by that date, 878 (or 54 percent) lived in such settings.
They are the nursing homes that were put on the back burner by our Government, the HSE and the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) while they focussed on expanding resources in our acute hospitals. And, of course, we are all grateful and proud of the wonderful work they have done in flattening the potential surge of this disease and its attrition amongst our wider population.  
But why did our nursing homes’ representative body, Nursing Homes Ireland (NHI) – as far back as on February 28 – have to beg for proper PPE? Correspondence released last week between Tadhg Daly, the chief executive of the NHI, and Department of Health officials also reveals his concerns about recruitment problems and how hospital discharges back into nursing homes would ravage the sector at this time.
Imagine having to resort to painters’ overalls, and supplies from a veterinary surgery and a local school to protect yourself and those you are caring for? That is what some nursing homes were forced to do to protect their staff and elderly residents.   
On March 6, the NHI released a statement confirming that ‘visiting restrictions [were] now in place in nursing homes nationwide. No non-essential visiting, children or groups will be allowed’. Why was this decision overturned? Because Chief Medical Officer, Tony Holohan said no organisation was allowed act ‘unilaterally’?
Minutes from a NPHET meeting on March 10, four days later, stated that ‘unilateral/widespread restriction of visiting to nursing homes, hospitals and healthcare facilities is not required at this time’.
Why then 36 hours later did it effect a U-turn and advise that the restrictions to visiting nursing homes be reimposed?
What number of lives were ultimately lost because of this prevarication and lack of respect for the decision made by the expert group overseeing nursing homes? Should we not have been ahead of the curve as we watched what was already happening in the nursing homes of Lomabardy, in Northern Italy?  
Tragically, the older citizens we have lost to Covid-19 were often even more vulnerable because of co-morbidities. This is the real difficulty in counting and identifying the deaths precisely from this disease.   
However, the bottom line is that these people were our mothers and fathers, grannies and granddads, great-grannies and great-granddads, sisters and brothers. These were the people who lived through the Emergency and emigration; they grew up in a country where there was widespread institutional abuse by both the Church and State. These were the people who sacrificed and scrimped so that the next generation could live in relative comfort. They were community leaders and teachers, GAA players and coaches, characters and rascals, lovers and losers.
Just because you are older doesn’t mean you are ready to die. Just because you are older too doesn’t mean you even want to die. These elders were wives and husbands, fathers and mothers, grandparents and great-grandparents.
So why was their vulnerability to this horrific disease left on the back burner as NPHET was set up and the acute hospitals resourced and prepared?
Many of us have first-hand experience of the dedication of staff in our nursing homes. When we are no longer able to cope and manage looking after our elders, these homes become homes-away-from-homes for our loved ones. They are loved and looked-after by those brave front-line staff who – and we need to remember this – have nursed back to good health many residents afflicted with Covid-19. While doing this they have put their own lives at risk, making huge personal sacrifices.  
It is way too easy to dole out blame and claim that private nursing homes are profit-driven when the State absolutely leaves them under-funded and under-resourced. If the State needs private nursing homes to share its job of looking after our elderly why does the National Treatment Purchase Fund allocate considerably less towards the care of residents?
Never before has it been more timely to reassess how the elderly in our society must be cherished and cared for in nursing home settings.
It is 92 years since WB Yeats, our national poet, wrote those immortalised words ‘This is no country for old men’ in his poem about ageing, called ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. Even more prophetic since this pandemic has shown it is also no country for old women.