In a special report in the Sunday Independent, our journalists hear some of the stories inside Ireland's nursing homes.
They are most vulnerable to Covid-19, but the people inside the country’s care homes have had little platform to speak of their experiences. We heard some of their stories.
Introduction by Brendan O'Connor
The laugh of it is that despite all this we can still talk about “older people” as if they are ‘other’. As if they are a type, a species, some of them vulnerable, some of them defiantly not. But all of them old. As if being old is what defines them. You’d swear they were never young. You’d swear we were never going to be old. You’d swear they were beamed down from space as older people.
They were grouped and commoditised over the last few months. They were all too often portrayed as a problem to be dealt with. Their presence in the homes of their children and grandchildren in Italy led, we were told, to the horrific playing out of Covid there. Indeed, their very oldness was a problem. Italy’s older population, we heard, means more deaths, worse plague. As if their audacity for living was getting its comeuppance, as if their daring to age so much, and among their families, loved and useful and with agency, was punished.
But then, the rest of the world discovered that warehousing older people together didn’t fool the virus either. It just made it easier to knock them down like dominoes.
But in another way, what has happened in the last two months has been beautiful and revelatory. We are all thinking a lot about the elders, about how the people who should be the heart of our society have too often been banished to the periphery, to darkness at the edge of town.
No one allows a family member to go and live in a care home unless they think it is the best option for them. And those who work in care homes do amazing work to give a home to people who are, initially at least, strangers to them. But equally, what good is an extended life if we do not do our best to imbue it with meaning and purpose? People have different needs and abilities for sure, but what good is a life if you are not, when appropriate, treated like an individual, and allowed to make choices — choices about what you do each day and when you do it, and what you eat and who you hang around with?
We have realised more than ever in recent weeks that we revere our elders, that they are at the centre of our lives. And not just as the childminders who hold it all together for some families. We revere their strength and wisdom and experience and fearlessness and the unflappable sense of humour that you get when you don’t give as much of a damn anymore.
And tomorrow we can go to the garden centre, and a farmers’ market, and meet three other people in a neutral space. But the question people keep asking is, ‘When can we hug our granny?’
Which is shorthand for, when can we see them, check in with them, bask in them, moan to them about our problems in a way we can’t to anyone else.
And most of all, with those hugs we will tell them that we may not have realised how much we love them and need them, and that they are at the centre of our world, not warehoused on the edge of it, waiting to die.
Maeve Sheehan in Cavan
On a January day, Maggie Timmons’s father swept her up and carried her outside into the cold air. She was four or five years old and hot with a fever caused by measles.
“I had a very great temperature. I remember my father taking me out and standing me on a big block to cool down. When I cooled down, he brought me in and put me back into bed. That’s all I remember about it,” she says.
The child survived her father’s desperate efforts to ease the symptoms of a highly contagious disease that killed many children.
At the age of 102, Maggie Timmons — born in the year of the Spanish influenza pandemic — is facing down the second deadly viral infection in her lifetime.
In the Oak View nursing home in Co Cavan, she keeps to her room. Carers and nurses bring her news and chat and she follows the news on the television about the progression of Covid-19, which, as of last week, had spread to 246 nursing homes.
“I wasn’t frightened at the start. But I didn’t think it was so bad. It was only later I discovered that it was so bad,” she says. Since lockdown, she longs for her regular outings to check on her garden in her countryside home outside Belturbet. “I used to get out for a few hours every day to go home… It was getting out and getting around my garden. That has all stopped,” she says.
She spends days “sitting here, wondering when is the day it will all be over?” she says. “I listen to it on television, hoping that something will come soon.”
Maggie is one of 25,000 older people living in nursing homes around the country. If health workers are the frontline defence against this disease, then older people are its main target. More than 55pc of the 1,500-plus deaths to date are among residents of nursing homes, according to the Department of Health.
Debate has raged about the failure to anticipate the impact of the coronavirus on nursing homes in Ireland. The health authorities have pointed out that the experience here is no different to most other countries, although the death rate is slightly higher. Dr Tony Holohan, the chief medical officer, has stood by his insistence thatit wasn’t necessary for nursing homes to close to visitors, when private nursing homes were advised to do just that. He rescinded that advice five days later.
Healthcare staff, nurses, the lobby group Nursing Homes Ireland and the trade unions have had their say. Families have been speaking out for loved ones. The voices we’ve heard least are of those most directly impacted by the coronavirus and most imperilled by it: the people who live in nursing homes. What is it like to live in confinement, hoping to ward off an encroaching virus that has claimed the lives of 948 residents of long stay care facilities, of which 823 were residents of nursing homes.
Sitting in her private room at Oak View nursing home in Belturbet, Sheila Sheehan has been “terrified” watching the progress of the coronavirus unfold on the television news, which she follows avidly. “I heard about it first in other countries, of course. I couldn’t believe when it came to Ireland,” says Sheila.
“I was just very scared in the beginning, because I didn’t know what was happening. At first, I thought once you got it, that’s it. Once it comes in here, we’ll all be gone. Then I realised that people have been recovering from it.”
She says the nursing home staff have been wonderful in keeping all of the residents informed on the steps they were taking to keep the virus out, including closing to visitors before the public health authorities had advised it.
Staff at Oak View managed to keep the virus at bay until early April, when two of its residents who had been in Cavan General Hospital tested positive after they were discharged back into the nursing home, according to Geraldine Donohoe, director of care. Two residents who died tested positive and a third was a suspected case. More than nine people were cohorted in a separate part of the facility but the outbreak is now under control.
Sheila was shielded from these cases, and does not speak about how they impacted on her.
“We stay in our rooms, a lot of us anyway,” says Sheila. “The first week or 10 days I was completely closeted in my bedroom, completely. But then we got face masks and with the face masks on I can walk the corridor here, which is great, just to get a break.”
The decision to close the nursing home to visitors has impacted on her quality of life but she believes it was the right thing to do.
“From my point of view, I couldn’t go out at weekends to see my daughter. Naturally you miss it, but it has been for our own good, of course,” she says.
Now her daughter visits once a week, pulling up in the car park and talking to Sheila on the phone from outside. She leaves a box, usually something to satisfy her sweet tooth, which is quarantined for 24 hours so she has to wait a day before she gets it. “That’s the system they have here.”
Sheila worries that the restrictions will be eased too soon and, as she puts it, “we will be back at square one”.
Her message to the Government is to err on the side of caution: “I am terrified that they will open it all up too soon. I miss going out to my daughter at the weekend. But I think it is worth making the effort,” she says. “I know they say you can fight it if you get it, but why should we have to start all over again, you know?”
Down the corridor, Mary Jo O’Flaherty comes on the phone to say she is “not one bit worried” about the virus. “Everything came very quickly, it was a surprise to us. But we’ve got used to it now and I’m not one bit worried that things will [not] turn out all right,” she says.
She personally doesn’t feel lonely in lockdown and say she has “plenty” to occupy herself with in the nursing home.
But she would like to see a gradual return to normality so that she can once again see her children and grandchildren.
“You have to go by the rules but I think they should relax it a bit anyway… Yes, we miss the visitors. I suppose we can’t do anything about that, but I suppose it will come back to normal,” she says. “I am quite calm. I am not one bit worried. I feel safe here, I am quite happy and I will be here until the end of my life,” she says.
She knew one of the residents who passed away — a lady who she used to see in the dayroom. “She did pass away, yes,” was all that she would say.
“I mean you have to take life as it comes to you. I would not be scared of it. I am not that kind. I have seen death.”
The residents of Oak View forged their formative years in the harsh decades of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, emerging as a generation of stoics.
Maggie Timmons, at 102 years old, says she is not afraid that she might contract Covid-19. “To be quite honest, I never do think about it. If I’m going to get it, I’ll get it and if I don’t, I don’t. There is no use worrying and going mad about it either,” she says.
She lost two of her children, most recently her son. “He was at home and he looked grand, and he went outside the door, he came back. He told me he’d go up to bed for a wee rest. And then he comes downstairs after about half an hour. I heard him come down the hall and the next, down.”
His death put Covid-19 in perspective. “Could anything worse than that happen? I don’t think so.
“I have lost two sons the same way,” she says. “I think about them all the time.”
Maggie and her husband, John, are coming up to 70 years married, a milestone that would ordinarily be celebrated in the nursing home, where she says she has lived happily for four years.
She thinks the Government and Health Minister Simon Harris are “doing their best”.
Like Mary Jo, she would like the Government to gradually ease restrictions: “I think they should do it on a regulated basis, not all of a sudden. But to be open to visits would be very, very nice, to come back to some form of normality that seems to be gone.”
The day she gets out to see her garden cannot come soon enough. “To go out and look around it is all I have to do with it. There’s nothing done this year so far because the garden centres were all closed down,” she says.
“I am just taking it day by day, hoping that this will soon be over so that we can get back to some sort of normality.”
This is what we can learn from a centenarian whose life has been bookended by two pandemics.
Wayne O'Connor in Westmeath
Sean Cassidy looked on as images from Spain flashed on the television a few weeks ago. They showed glimpses of a nursing home where residents had been abandoned.
The father-of-four lives in Portiuncula nursing home in Multyfarnham, Co Westmeath. He is happy and his home has escaped the worst Covid-19 can reap but there is worry about those less fortunate than him.
“I’ve a friend in Mullingar. That’s the only thing I feel sorry about. He got a bad stroke last Christmas, only 51 years old. He was very bad and spent 16 weeks up in Dun Laoghaire [the National Rehabilitation Hospital] and he is back down here [in Westmeath] now. Where he is, there have been six or seven cases.”
They try to speak regularly on the phone but Sean also has health concerns. He was due to have a lung operation but was recently told the procedure will be delayed by the crisis.
He makes no fuss, instead looking to other residents.
“There are people who are worse off than me. These are the people I would be thinking about. The only way I can help them is by helping the ones who can’t help themselves, reassure them the best we can.
“It’s hard, and then you turn around and look at the television and see all these other nursing homes. There was one locked up in another country and everyone went off and left them.”
Sean will turn 73 on Friday. He is in his seventh year in the nursing home he credits with saving his life.
Before moving here, he was 34 stone and a problem drinker. An accident at home in Castlepollard led to his family intervening. He has not drunk since, lost 10 stone, battled pancreatic cancer and lives a full life.
“At this time of year I get up very early. I’m an early bird. I’d have a wash and shower. Mass is at nine o’clock in the Friary nearby, then I’d have the breakfast.”
Covid-19 has changed his routine. He spends much of his time doing crafts and enjoys building with ice cream sticks. Bingo used to happen a couple of times a week in the home, but now games often take place a couple of times every day.
“Fr Paddy [Brady] lives here too and says mass in the home,” says Sean.
Fr Paddy is on our front page this week, with Sean. When the Sunday Independent visited last Thursday he had a stole over his shoulders and a walking frame in his hands as he went to pray with fellow residents. “If people call for me I will go,” Fr Paddy says. “We say mass here now in the dining room for everyone too, because some people are in wheelchairs or stretchers and need space. We take confession too in a room.”
Sean is a staunch Fianna Fail supporter. His brother, Donie, was a Fianna Fail senator and the local TD between 2002 and 2007. The Covid-19 crisis has seen Sean perform a U-turn on his opinion of Health Minister Simon Harris.
“Before all of this, I didn’t have much time for the health minister. I thought they should have got rid of him, but as this got worse, I think he has been doing a good job. I am very happy with Mr Harris and the Taoiseach but they listen to Tony [Holohan, the chief medical officer]. Tony, to me, is a genius.
“He said there was no need to close up the nursing homes but [Nursing Homes Ireland CEO Tadhg] Daly had different ideas. The other man came back four or five days later and changed his mind. I think he is still doing well. He has an awful job to do at short notice but I cannot understand what is happening in nursing homes where you hear 20 people have it.
“What went wrong there? I can’t figure that out because if someone coughs hard here or sneezes twice, they’d be on top of you straight away. That might be a bit of an exaggeration but you know what I mean, they are checking we are all right.”
Alan O'Keeffe in Tipperary
Mary Leahy remembered her growing terror as she watched television reports on the rising coronavirus death toll in the early weeks of the pandemic.
She preferred to stay in her room at Bramleigh Lodge nursing home in Cahir, Co Tipperary, as the daily news outlined how older people were faring worse than others in the battle with Covid-19.
Sitting in her wheelchair in a suntrap in the central courtyard of the nursing home last Friday, she was relaxed as she spoke of her gratitude that she was living in “a beautiful place”.
“I was terrified at first by the news of the virus. I realised there was no point in getting anxious and I ask God to give me strength,” said the 69-year-old grandmother.
A visit by the Sunday Independent to meet Mary and other residents was far from simple because of strict procedures being operated by management and staff at the home.
Staff ensured that a newspaper reporter and photographer would have to work under very stringent health and safety protocols to ensure the safety of residents and staff. The home has successfully been kept safe from Covid-19.
A Portakabin installed at the front door of the single-storey complex ensured that all staff, each time they entered and left, changed their clothing for anti-contamination purposes.
Both visitors from this newspaper underwent temperature checks and had to answer a series of questions about our current health status. A full outfit of personal protective equipment was handed to this reporter to wear.
Photographer Gerry Mooney donned a white full-body hooded outfit that made him look like a forensic investigator from an episode of CSI.
It was only when we were fully briefed on the strict social-distancing rules that we were allowed to proceed to limited locations within the home.
Mary was waiting for us in the sun-filled courtyard at the centre of the building. She is from Tipperary town and has spent the last two-and-a-half years at Bramleigh Lodge and she loves the place.
She spoke of being confined to a wheelchair with arthritis and epilepsy. She recalled how she had fallen from the rear platform of a Dublin double-decker bus in 1970 at the age of 19. Her head had struck the pavement in the fall and she ended up with a clot on the brain and having to spend two years in hospital.
The tight restrictions in operation at the nursing home did not pose any significant problems and Mary fully understood that families could not be allowed into the home at the present time.
“I feel safest when I’m in my own room. I love knitting. I am so glad that I have been able to knit and I’m happy to stay in my room much of the time,” she said.
She was glad to help charities with her knitting and she welcomed the chance to knit for family and friends.
But the nightly news bulletins on the numbers of people lost to Covid “breaks my heart”, Mary said.
Inside a communal room, John Arrigan (85), from New Burgess in Cahir, extended a warm welcome and said he had spent his life in farming and in business before moving into Bramleigh Lodge two years ago.
He left school at 13 to work on his family’s farm and later set up an oil distribution company, Cahir Oil Products.
He missed being able to have visitors but he accepted the rules as entirely necessary to keep everyone safe.
“At first, I wasn’t worried about the virus but then I began to see reports on how it was developing in the country and I got worried,” he said.
“But I don’t believe in blaming people as it was completely unknown. I think the Government has handled the situation fairly well.”
He believed mistakes were made at early stages of the pandemic when officials said strict no-visiting rules in some nursing homes were premature. “Of course mistakes were made. But how could you get through something as massive as this problem without making some mistakes?” John said.
He was “very impressed” with Health Minister Simon Harris’s performance. However, he was less impressed with some of the top health officials’ appearances on television as he believed it’s possible they “took their eye off the ball” when they initially spoke out against tough restrictions on visitors to nursing homes.
John believed the planned easing of restrictions in Ireland will need constant vigilance by officials and adherence to regulations. “You can’t be taking any chances,” he said, but added that he was glad the nation was “pulling together”.
Director of nursing Resmi Rajan (37) said there will be no relaxation in the home’s restrictions in the near future.
She said there are still “distressing” delays in the virus- testing system for healthcare workers. One of her healthcare staff was informed she would get her test results back within 48 hours. After 10 days, she was still waiting and she continued to self-isolate. Another staff member was still waiting for results after five days.
Resmi said Bramleigh Lodge was divided into two cocooning units with two separate staff teams so that if the virus was ever detected in one unit, the other unit would be protected.
She said the mental health of people with dementia was being safeguarded by bringing them for escorted visits to communal areas to maintain social distancing.
Owners Brendan and Laura Myers said they took action quickly to protect residents at the early stages of the pandemic. The Government subsidies to help nursing homes fight the virus were “very welcome”.
Brendan was concerned about the five-step ‘unlocking’ of the country. “We’re concerned because people generally will potentially become more casual and, for nursing homes generally, the risk of infection coming in might go up in the short term. As the country unwinds, people already seem to be running ahead of the process which causes concern about community transmission,” he said.
Also sitting in the sun-drenched courtyard was Joseph Darcy, a 64-year-old father-of-five who uses an oxygen bottle to help with COPD breathing difficulties.
“I was frightened by the news about this virus at the beginning but I’m in good hands here which helps me stay positive. But I worry about people around the country who are going against the regulations,” he said.
“There are people going around in groups and socialising far too close together. These people can carry the disease to others. I’m in favour of relaxing restrictions but people must continue to keep their distance from others for all our sakes.”