For many families, the move of a relative into residential care is the cause of great anguish, writes Harriet Harman…
Even when it’s obvious that a young adult with autism or learning difficulties needs to move out of the family home, or when it’s clear that an older person can no longer manage in their own home, it can still leave the family with regrets that they’ve had to move out and worry as to whether their relative is in the place that’s genuinely best for them.
As they worry, relatives reassure themselves that at least they can visit regularly. To show that those bonds of family still matter and provide the link to home.
But when, at the start of the pandemic last year, older people with Covid were discharged from hospitals into care homes at the start of the pandemic, a dreadful death toll began in residential care. And figures have now emerged that show that people with disabilities have been far more likely to die of COVID.
As care homes locked down hard to tackle Covid, they banned family visits in an understandable response to the health threat to residents. But this has had a terrible impact on residents and their relatives. As the lockdown was eased in the summer and testing became more widespread, some homes made great efforts to resume visits.
Gazebos were put up to enable visits outside where it is safer and families were invited to come and see their relatives through a window.
But in many homes the blanket ban on relatives persisted. It has shone a spotlight on just how much families matter to a relative in residential care, both to the relative and to the visitor. Relatives of older care home residents know their visits are the precious connection with memories which will otherwise fade and provide vital stimulation which helps slow the advance of dementia.
Families worry that if visits are denied for too long, by the time they get to see their relative it will be too late and they will no longer recognise them. Those unique threads to the past will have been broken and isolation deepened.
Family visits are also important reassurance about care standards. No one looks more closely to see if nails are cut, hair is brushed and there are no unexplained bruises.
Parents of a young person in residential care are desperate to ensure that their son or daughter knows they are still loved and valued as a member of the family. Not being able to see parents can cause a young person distress and anguish and mean their problems deteriorate.
Some homes have restored visits safely but it needs to be all care homes, not just some. By law, everyone has the right to family life and a ban, where it is not even considered whether a visit can be allowed safely, breaches the Human Rights Act.
Some other countries are tackling this better, like Canada, where the law guarantees visits for a relative who is the “designated care-giver”, provided they test negative before each visit.
It takes a team to care for an older person in residential care: dedicated staff in the home and loving family visiting. It’s time we changed the law to guarantee that.
Parliament’s Human Rights Committee, which I chair, has drafted Regulations which could be put into law in just a couple of days.
We’ve presented these to the Health Secretary and urged him to bring them into the House of Commons. For those in residential care, there’s no time to wait.