If one moment could sum up the gut-wrenching misery of it all, this was probably it. The time is about 11.30 on a grey November morning and my 90-year-old grandmother is hurtling along the A303 to Cornwall, frightened out of her skin.
Gwen Hyde, a widow and former psychiatric nurse who is adored by her family, has late-state dementia to the point where she struggles to string together a coherent sentence. Yet here she is, strapped into the middle of a wheelchair taxi with an unobstructed view of the lorries zooming towards her in the opposite lane.
It’s just as well she can’t see the dials on the taxi’s dashboard. The driver, who appears to have arrived bleary-eyed from a late night on another job, is paying scant attention to the 70mph speed limit. In fact, he looks liable to nod off any moment, and my aunt, who for years has diligently cared for and visited her mother as the Alzheimer’s has worsened, is forced to shake the man’s shoulder and ask him to slow down.
Dementia may have robbed Gwen of her words, but her wide eyes and grimace speak clearly enough: this is hell on earth.
Memories: Dan Hyde with his grandmother Gwen, now aged 90, a widow and former psychiatric nurse, long before she was struck down by Alzheimer’s
Why, you might ask, is someone of her advanced years and ill-health being put through such an ordeal in the middle of a pandemic? The clue, I’m afraid, is in the question. Coronavirus is now having the devastating effect of driving care homes to the wall.
And that means families face another disaster to round off this gruelling year: frail residents such as my grandmother are being turfed out at the worst possible moment and forced to find a new home.
In Gwen’s case, her care home in Surrey sent us a ‘proposed closure’ letter, quite unexpectedly, at the end of October.
The news, it acknowledged, would cause ‘shock and distress to all concerned’. It noted that urgent repairs to an ageing lift and the hot water and heating system threatened ‘considerable inconvenience to the residents’, adding that ‘in the current circumstances [having workmen in to carry out repair work] would not be appropriate’.
But perhaps more tellingly, it also revealed that just 25 of its 37 bedrooms were occupied following 11 deaths since April – almost one in three of the residents.
This, care home insiders say, gets to the heart of a crisis that is being replicated across the country. As deaths of care home residents have soared – reaching 86,566, from all causes, between March 20 and the end of October, according to reports last week – fewer families than normal are moving relatives into the rooms being vacated.
Not only are families keen to hold out until a vaccine makes care homes a safer environment, they are banned under Covid rules from viewing the properties before signing up – and have been told they won’t be able to visit their loved ones to help them settle in, according to our sources.
But if care homes can’t fill their beds, it poses a serious problem to the owners.
Contrary to popular belief, many care homes operators exist on very thin profit margins. Despite astronomical annual fees, which average about £33,000 per resident, most care homes need almost every room occupied to break even.
The blame for this predicament, which lies at the door of greedy private investors and woefully inadequate Government funding, is a subject for another time. Suffice to say, care homes ravaged by Covid-19 are now running out of money.
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Take Newfield Nursing Home in Sheffield as another example. It hit the headlines in October as one of the worst affected by the pandemic, with 25 people dying with Covid-19 and more than 110 residents and staff testing positive. Now it is closing for good.
In total, 275 care homes shut down between January and the start of August. That was more than the figure for the whole of 2019, according to researchers Laing Buisson.
Yet industry sources have told me the rapid spread of the virus inside some care homes reflects only half the story.
According to Office for National Statistics data, just under a third of care home deaths since March have been linked to the coronavirus. Meanwhile, deaths from other causes, including dementia, are far higher than usual.
True enough, at my grandmother’s care home, one member of staff revealed to us that just two of the 11 people who died had actually contracted Covid-19. The rest, she explained, just gave up on living. ‘So many went before their time,’ she said, her voice choked by emotion. ‘With nobody allowed to visit them, they weren’t able to see their loved ones. They just couldn’t understand the isolation and some stopped eating and drinking.’
As regular readers will know, The Mail on Sunday has warned for months of the damage being caused by the inhumane ban on care home visits. We received a deluge of letters from readers who reported a severe decline in the health of their loved ones under rules often described as barbaric.
Julia Jones, co-founder of the John’s Campaign for improved visitor rights, put it best when she told us: ‘These are not visitors, these are husbands and wives of 60 years or more, and children.
‘What is really important is that people in the last months of their lives are able to be together with the people who make their lives worth living. That’s what matters.’
Happy days: A beaming Gwen with her new husband Bert on their wedding day in 1950
Well, Ministers can now add ‘sudden care home closures’ to the list of misery caused by imprisoning frail elderly people and denying them contact with the children and grandchildren who give them reason to keep going.
For their part, the staff at my grandmother’s former care home in Surrey are furious about the situation. They’ve been among Britain’s true frontline heroes since this nightmare began in March.
Those who cared for my grandmother cannot be faulted. But they are now losing their jobs, in some cases after decades of dedicated service, and can only watch with sadness as the residents they have cared for are plunged into the unknown.
If you haven’t had to move a dementia sufferer from one care home to another, it may be hard to imagine the pain it can cause. For our family, the only realistic option was to move my grandmother to Cornwall, nearer to where my aunt lives – hence that terrifying wheelchair taxi journey, which we so wish had not been necessary.
Other families hit by closures may find simpler solutions, while in extremis the local council can step in.
But studies have shown that any major change in environment can trigger rapid decline in people with dementia. In fact, the experience is so common that medical experts in the US have given it a label: transfer trauma.
My grandmother is safely in her new home. But, worryingly for us, she has stopped answering to her own name and has eaten less than normal since the move. It’s another reason why the news last week that Health Secretary Matt Hancock is finally working on a testing plan to allow care home visits at Christmas could not have come soon enough.
But I just can’t help thinking that, with a little more urgency, my grandmother’s traumatic move – and the tumult for other families in a similar boat – might somehow have been avoided altogether.