Before the first lockdown Peter O’Neill looked forward to visits from his daughters – and his face lit up when he saw them.
Just six months later – and following weeks of tight restrictions around care home visits – Peter, who lives with dementia, no longer seems to know that Olivia, 25, and Holly, 18, are his children.
Olivia, who was unable to see her father until a letter to her MP secured a window visit, told the Manchester Evening News: “We were greeted with a completely different person to what my dad was before lockdown.
“He was distressed, trying to get out, staring into the distance half the time. He didn’t know who we were.
“The isolation from us had accelerated his condition so much. We were devastated.”
“Before lockdown he 100 per cent knew me and my sister’s names, he absolutely could tell us apart. Now it’s so faded. He seems to recognise us but he doesn’t know we’re his daughters. He’s lost that now.
“He was always such a strong person – to see him in this level of distress is really the most traumatising thing me and my sisters have ever had to go through.”
“My sister and I held it together while we were there but when we got to the car we broke down and were rock bottom for days after that.”
The heartbreaking change in Peter, 75, has left his family distraught and, along with thousands of other relatives, they are campaigning to be given key worker status so they can finally hug their dad again.
On Wednesday, the government announced a shift from a ban on care home visits during lockdowns, allowing instead for residents to see their relatives through screens, in pods or via open window visits.
However, Olivia says this is not enough for residents with dementia who find such visits confusing and distressing.
The government is also progressing a plan for a pilot scheme to give relatives key worker status. But they will not release more detail on this until later in the month – and families like Peter’s say time is of the essence.
Peter, whose third daughter Rebecca, 27, lives abroad, first moved into a care home four years ago.
Olivia, a singing teacher who lives in Reddish, Stockport, added: “Any person who had ever met my dad – people he worked with, friends, family – all said what a generous, kind person he is. People in the care home now say what a lovely man he is.
“He always tried to do the right thing – that’s part of why we are campaigning, nobody deserves to live their life in confused stress – and my dad 100 per cent doesn’t that. He’s an amazing dad. He always put us first.
“He would hate the fact we are having to go through this.
“This is such a hard thing for us to go through. My sister is only 18 – she needs her dad.”
Peter, who was diagnosed with dementia six years ago, ran his own oil and gas company supplying staff to work on pipelines.
The first signs of his condition were changes to his personality and he started making strange decisions and forgetting things. Eventually, the family made the difficult decision to move Peter to a home.
Peter was sometimes confused, says Olivia, but was able to enjoy his daughters’ company during regular visits, and would get involved in conversations.
During lockdown, his condition progressed and he had to move to a new home, in unfamiliar surroundings and with staff who are strangers to him. This has compounded his confusion.
Unable to see her dad, Olivia wrote to MP Angela Rayner who helped get them a window visit.
But, Olivia says, the sisters were shocked by what they saw.
“He spent half the visit blank behind the eyes – the other half he was distressed.
Olivia added: “If we’d known then what we know now we would have kept him at home. I personally now feel horrendously guilty watching him have to go through this.
“My dad is my absolute hero.
“But there are days when I think it would be easier if he passed away because it’s that cruel and that inhumane. I never would have said that before lockdown.”
Olivia says window visits, which are now officially allowed, are not sufficient for her dad.
“He walks off, gets distressed, tries to get out. It’s not a visit, he can barely even hear us. The window is open 2cm. It’s basically looking at our dad through a window.”
Olivia says relatives need to be given key worker status, with regular testing, so they can see their loved ones in care homes.
She added: “Many people with Alzheimer’s and dementia don’t understand the concept of the virus. They feel abandoned by their family.
“I cannot believe how far into the pandemic we are and this issue just seems to have been thrown to the side and not addressed.”
Judy Downie, from the Relatives and Residents Association, is among those calling for the Government to give family members key worker status with testing and PPE so they can have regular contact with residents. But she too complains that the government’s glacial pace on this issue is damaging those affected.
Judy argues it is not just psychological benefits that such visits give – but that loved ones can also help with other health needs.
She added: “Some are not even recognising their children any more. It’s heartbreaking, there’s an enforced break and when you go back this person who has been the centre of your life for 60 years turns away because they don’t know who you are.
“We are seeing human tragedies unfold quietly every day.”
What the Department of Health and Social Care say:
“ We understand the pain and the very real consequences of loved ones being separated and we must get the balance right between reuniting families and ensuring care staff and residents are safe from Covid-19.
“We understand these options won’t be suitable for every situation, but we are working to trial testing for visitors to reduce the risk of indoor visits and give families more opportunities to spend time with relatives in care homes.”
- Plans are currently being developed to allow specific family and friends to visit care homes supported by testing. A sector-led group is overseeing the development of these plans with trials set to begin later this month.
- More details on the trial testing of visitors will be published in due course.