It’s so hard to recruit care staff that some care homes are having to turn people away, even elderly patients from hospital, and homecare providers are handing back care packages to their local authorities. 5,000 people were rejected for care in the period from 3 September to 20 October, reported the National Care Forum, and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) predicts ‘a tsunami of unmet need this winter’, unless staff shortages are resolved. ‘Tsunami of unmet need’ is a striking phrase, but it doesn’t show the human tragedies happening behind closed doors.
I’m seeing it close to hand with a couple of old friends: the husband (90), a gentle, retired pastor, has dementia, and his wife (87) has been waiting the best part of a year for an operation that will fit a new pacemaker to stimulate a failing heart. She has finally been given a date and is phoning her friends to see who can take her the 20 miles to the hospital by 8.00 am and someone else who can look after her husband while she’s gone for the day. She’s also wondering how she’s going to manage in the week after the operation, when she has been told to rest and not raise her arms higher than her shoulders. All of us involved are part of her church fellowship and I can’t imagine what would happen if we weren’t here for her.
Recruiting carers is not a new problem. At any point during the past 10 years there have been 100,000 vacancies. In October 2019, Age UK found that in the 18 months between the July 2017 and the December 2019 elections, over 1.5 million calls for help had been turned down, and each day an average 80 people had died waiting for care support.
This tsunami has been building since 2010, when government funding for social care plummeted. Adequate funding would have meant higher wages for care staff, better reflecting their skills and responsibilities and the vital jobs they do, and greater awareness of their value amongst the public.
What can we, as people commissioned by God to care for one another, do to help?
Our charity, the 214 years old Pilgrims’ Friend Society, has both independent living housing and care homes. We pray over Zoom each morning and at noon, lifting our work to God, praying especially for our care staff. They have coped magnificently through the crisis and the extra work it has brought, and we ask God daily to renew their strength. We are blessed by the churches who help: they pray for us, raise money and come in as volunteers. Our new home in Chippenham has been built with facilities for them and the local community in mind, with a café, hair dressing salon, and meeting rooms open to them.
For people struggling to care at home, it’s the simple things that help. For my old friends someone from the fellowship has offered to drive her to the hospital (a round trip for him of 50 miles), another to collect her afterwards, and another to stay with her husband for the day. Others are arranging to stay the days following the operation.
Now the social distancing rule has ended, churches are able to step into the gap. It helps if the fellowship has a ‘care lead’, someone who can note the needs of people needing help and discover things others can do, matching needs to talents. Some people are whizzes at filling out forms and cutting through bureaucracy, and some are blessed with an empathy that enables vital spiritual support. Rather than ask ‘how can we help?’ make practical suggestions, like cutting the grass, staying with the husband so the wife can have an hour or two to herself, perhaps getting her hair done or even doing the ironing. Yes, doing the ironing! At a time of vigilance and uncertainly being able to do something basic and routine can be soothing. At one church I visited some of the ladies loved baking and would bake an extra cake to be taken around to the family; and the ‘lead’ knew where that would be most welcome! Of course, it is more than just a cake - it’s the family of God saying, ‘we haven’t forgotten you; we love you.’
It’s also an opportunity for reaching into the community, resources permitting. Many churches are already integrated with their local community, and the older people struggling on their own are still the Sunday School generation.
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This booklet provides advice on how to prepare well to visit someone with dementia and the best things to do and say when visiting.