The cruel exploitation of elderly people

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During the pandemic care workers were thrown into the frontline with little support or PPE, caring for the elderly that had been abandoned to the privatised care industry, writes Jenny Dalgleish

If COVID doesn’t kill them loneliness will.” Time and again I heard this from care workers as those we care for, already so isolated, spent months in near solitary confinement, in their own homes or in residential care. The cafés, church lunch groups and day services were closed and families were banished. Particularly for older people living alone, often in pain or in grief, lockdown has been devastating. The government initially wanted to allow the virus to rip through the population, only implementing lockdown, too late, to prevent the NHS being completely overwhelmed.
The pandemic saw ordinary people volunteer and organise in their millions. That outpouring of compassion and solidarity could not be further removed from priorities of a system in which caring for others is commodified. The Care industry is a vast and lucrative business, employing more people than the NHS and almost entirely in the hands of profiteers. I work with extraordinary, highly skilled people doing one of the most important and demanding jobs.
We support a Jewish refugee from Germany who lost her entire family in the holocaust, trained and spent her life as a midwife who now, in her mid-nineties, lives with dementia. She has the most beautiful and joyful laugh I’ve ever heard. I recently spoke to a fiercely independent and intelligent woman in her mid-nineties who angrily tells me she is furious with what the government has done to the young and that this pandemic is far worse for them. She says, during the war we lived with bombs but for young women there was a new freedom, we were out day and night, with no fathers around to keep an eye on us, she says. We had each other. But, she continues, during lockdown young people have been isolated from each other. I look after a women who raised three daughters and worked full time all her life as a subeditor.
She spends her day looking at her favourite book; it’s falling apart, but actually she can’t read anymore. Alzheimer’s took that from her. The company I work for employs hundreds of home care or residential care workers in the Calder Valley in the north of England, once dominated by textiles production. They say the residential homes are the new mills. The Kings Fund think tank says the average care worker will receive the minimum wage and pay “remains below the level of average pay of shop workers or cleaners”. In much the same way a parcel is delivered we deliver ‘care’, usually in thirty minute slots, on our rotas, to between ten or twenty people a day.
Mainly in their late eighties or nineties or with disabilities, they all need some kind of support from others just to perform basic daily needs (get out of bed, wash, prepare a meal, shop for food, get outside, take medication). There’s never enough time to do all the practical tasks, still less to talk to the residents properly. There’s never enough travel time, we are rushing from call to call or running for a bus in the dark or rain. We sometimes visit the same person several times a day over many years. The emotional attachment and investment becomes huge. Then overnight, care work became one of the most dangerous jobs. Security guards, taxi drivers, bus drivers, care workers, the most at risk and the least protected, are dying at more than twice the national average.
While the whole country was told to stay at home and go to the shops weekly at most, we were in contact with so many people and their families, and we shop for others several times a day. Someone living alone with dementia won’t know if they become ill with Covid-19, won’t understand what’s happening to them, won’t be able to tell you in advance. Comfort We could arrive at 7am to someone who’d been coughing all night with their windows closed, or be hoisting someone and they start coughing. We wash and dress people, in constant close physical contact, holding them, comforting them, helping them. Meanwhile the government lost millions of respiratory masks and failed to stockpile even basic PPE. Without routine testing, PPE or sick pay, we lived every day with the terror that instead of bringing care we’ll bring death.
A study by The Crick Institute showed:“At the height of the pandemic, our own research — and of course that only backs up what’s been done elsewhere — is that up to 45 percent of health and care workers were infected. And they were infecting their colleagues … reinfecting patients, yet they weren’t being tested systematically.” Almost immediately hand gel ran out. We mainly use public transport because few can afford to run a car. We start trying to buy gel online at extortionate prices and share this with other carers and the people we support.
A visit to a supermarket while wearing my badge saw a whole box of bottles of hand gel quietly slipped into my bag by a shop assistant. As soon as we put this on the shelves it goes she explained, get this to those who need it. Then disposable gloves ran out. We do a lot of personal care and disposable gloves are basic kit. Now we were told to ration and account for gloves. It became clear that families and care workers were asking for masks. But government advice initially was that this is unnecessary, indeed counterproductive. Towards the end of March, as tens of thousands in care homes or receiving home care were dead or dying the Government guidelines told us: “Please remember to wear PPE in all calls. This is gloves and aprons. Government guidelines at this point are saying we do not need to wear masks unless the customer is showing signs of Covid-19.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, in one care home in Sheffield, staff desperate to save those they care for offered to move in and live with them, to seal themselves off from the world. A care worker explained she also wanted to protect her child who had asthma and her husband who was diabetic. She said, “The risk was too much. It was a hard decision to leave my kids and husband, but I want to be able to look after my residents. We love our residents. We are a family.” On the Isle of Wight care staff offered to live onsite in tents.
As Covid-19 devastated the care homes a premium could be charged for such commitment. Within weeks of care industry forums celebrating the “extraordinary and humbling commitment” of one in four care home staff offering to move in with residents, industry-wide intimidation was exposed as staff were pressured into leaving their families for weeks on end, usually for no additional pay, as a deeply humanitarian gesture was turned into extortion by the employers. In a society in which human beings are valued in terms of their ability to labour, at the very beginning of our lives, and at the end, capitalism regards us as at our least productive. When we are in need of the most support, we get the least. The NHS is cherished though grossly under-funded, but social care of the oldest and those most in need of help is almost entirely privatised, the least invested in or scrutinised, staffed by the most poorly paid and most open to abuse.
A study into gender and work showed that 95 percent of nursery or care work with the elderly is carried out by women, performing roles which mirror women’s roles in the family. The family can offer respite, care and love. Women’s rights campaigner Tithi Bhattacharya refers to the family’s function for “the building of capacities and attributes essential to the human condition”. But under capitalism this life-making process becomes a profit-making process.
The great German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote brilliantly of how in times of crisis and war capitalism is stripped of its “polite façade, shows its true face in all its horror, its contempt for all that is decent and humane”. The unnecessary deaths and devastation unleashed on tens of thousands of the most vulnerable show pandemics, like war, leave capitalism exposed.
Jenny Dalgleish, a care and support worker in Calderdale, West Yorkshire.