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Bristol Post
Bristol Post
Sophie Grubb

Daughter's year of 'torture' as coronavirus visiting ban tears her away from 94-year-old mum in care home

"I’m frantic that she will die before we can hug again."

That is the heartbreaking possibility that has had Jane Smith waking up in the night in tears, desperate to see her 94-year-old mum Rita in her care home near Bristol.

The retired NHS worker has only been allowed fleeting visits to Windmill House in Old Down since the pandemic hit, even resorting to standing in the snow to see her asleep through the window.

The home says limiting visits had been an "essential tool" in the difficult measures necessary to protect vulnerable residents.

Coronavirus infiltrated the home at the end of January, with an outbreak of 38 cases - one of which has been fatal.

And it means that come March 8, when other care homes will be allowed to resume regular visits for one named person, Jane will still be prohibited from visiting her mum.

The 65-year-old said: "I'm desperate to see her, I'll do anything.

"She's just up the road but she could be on a different planet.

"It's just been torture. It's been a total nightmare."

Until lockdown, Jane had been visiting her mum daily for up to three hours at a time, helping to feed and care for her and watching television together.

She said: "Her face used to light up every time I visited, and that's been taken from us.

"We've lost a year together, those precious moments - they've gone. It's just cruel.

"My mental health has totally deteriorated. I've been waking up in the middle of the night, screaming or sobbing."

Jane Smith pictured with her mum Rita during happier times together (Jane Smith)

Her mum has health issues including dementia and an abdominal aneurysm, and Jane believes the deterioration of her condition in the past year is at least in part due to the lack of visits and stimulation they bring.

Rita has two daughters and three grandchildren, whose access in the past year has been even more limited than Jane's.

She said: "Families are being torn apart - some people haven't seen their loved ones since it [the pandemic] started.

"They are in the care homes thinking they have been abandoned, giving up all hope of ever seeing family again and thinking they're unwanted.

"Mum can't vocalise those words but at times I've seen the looks she's given me [on video calls], and I could see she was thinking it."

The retired NHS worker, who was a hospital pharmacist for 40 years, said it has been a "total uphill battle to get any access to her".

Christmas hug

Prior to the outbreak she said loved ones were only allowed one visit every few weeks, with strict precautions in place.

During one visit she said that even in "head to toe" PPE and having tested negative for coronavirus, she was still not allowed to reach out to touch her mum's blanket.

The rare exception was before Christmas, when she was allowed inside the home and was able to hug her.

Jane Smith, pictured with husband Peter and their friend Lynfa Fisher, is 'marching for mum' with a banner in the street outside her house every day (John Myers)

She said: "I gowned up and didn't enter through the home, I went through her [bedroom] window, and got to reach down and hug her.

"It was so wonderful to be that close to her."

She was also able to have physical contact with her mum at the start of January, but only because her health had taken such a turn that doctors considered her to be "end of life".

Jane, who lives in Thornbury, explained: "The only time you're allowed in is if someone is dying.

"For two days I managed to sit with her and hold her hand."

After her condition improved doctors no longer considered her end of life, despite Jane's desperate pleas that this decision would tear them apart again.

She argued: "End of life doesn't mean you're going to die imminently, it's about dying with dignity and with support and family around you.

"After that all I was allowed was 20 minute window visits, standing outside in the snow and rain with an umbrella.

"I had to look through the window and they tried to bring mum's bed closer, but she slept the whole time and I had no communication with her."

Jane said the fact that some care homes had taken a different approach almost made the situation worse than if it was a blanket policy.

'Opening up can be done safely'

She added: "People will say she is in the best place but other homes have tried [to open up access] and it has been done - it can be done safely.

"A lot of it goes back to the government, because care homes are private businesses and the guidance hasn't been mandated.

"Care homes are still doing what they want and interpret government guidance very differently."

She said the use of video calls and visiting 'pods' are often of no use for people with dementia, particularly those who are bed-bound with sight and hearing impairments.

: Jane Smith with her Husband Peter Smith and friend Lynfa Fisher on a 'march for mum' walk (John Myers)

Her mum has been at the care home for more than three years, and Jane stressed that she had been very happy with it until the pandemic hit.

She said: "Mum has been very well looked after, the food has been excellent and the carers have been excellent.

"She loves them and they love her.

"My issue is not with the carers, it's with the decision-makers."

Care home's response

The care home has defended its strict visiting policy and said it is a difficult decision meant only to protect residents and staff.

Len Collacott, managing director at Windmill Care, said: "We have every sympathy with our families and have worked hard to enable as much contact as possible.

"We normally have an open door policy and residents can have visitors at any time so it’s hard to move back from that - we can’t wait to get back to it.

"However, we can’t take risks with residents' lives and we have to follow advice to be prudent and cautious."

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He said care home staff have arranged regular Skype, telephone and Zoom calls to keep communication going, and built a 'visiting pod' in the lobby in September to enable safe visits from behind a screen.

He added: "We were able to start inside visits once testing was introduced in early December but that was stopped when the latest lockdown commenced in early January.

"Then on January 27 we suffered an outbreak and were instructed to close the home to visitors totally."

He said all decisions have been informed by Public Health England and government guidelines, and that limiting visits had been an "essential tool" in the difficult measures necessary to protect vulnerable residents.

He added: "Some of our residents' families think we have been too harsh on restricting visiting whilst others feel we are too soft and should keep locked down completely to reduce the spread of the virus into the home.

"None of us chose to be in this position but we have to make the best of a bad job."

Jane on her 'march for mum' walk yesterday (John Myers)

Jane acknowledged that other care homes have also initiated strict lockdowns, and said ultimately it is politicians like health secretary Matt Hancock and care minister Helen Whately who held responsibility for the rules.

She recognised the justification was to keep residents safe, but added: "Many die with covid or of isolation in torment, and would rather have had the choice of accepting some risk and enjoying the end of their lives.

"It is also the interpretation of guidance by home managers that causes such frustration - even when a resident has had both doses of vaccine, there always seems to be some excuse not to let relatives in as 'essential family carers' with testing, PPE and control of infection procedures, so they are no more of a risk than the carers themselves."

March 8 changes

Last month Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed that every care home resident will be allowed one regular indoor visitor from March 8.

Visitors will be required to have a test on entry and wear PPE, but will be allowed to hold hands with their loved ones, although not hug or kiss them.

At the time, Helen Whately said: "One of the hardest things during this pandemic has been seeing families desperate to be reunited with their loved ones kept apart and I absolutely want to bring them back together."

However, not all care homes will be implementing the change.

Jane has been lobbying care home managers, her local MP, the council and has even started tweeting Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock to make her voice heard.

She now takes her daily walk while holding protest signs, in an initiative she is calling March for Mum.

The campaigner has set up social media pages with like-minded relatives called @careunlock.

It has gained hundreds of followers already, united in the aim to "bring a swift end to inhumane visiting bans in care homes".

She is hopeful that other people will join in with their own marches, or even just sitting on their doorsteps, to express support for the reunion of families.

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