The shocking truth about the care home workers who couldn't care less
Interview by BARNEY CALMAN - 11th December 2007
Residents in care homes are routinely neglected, and as a Panorama report revealed last week, many are kept subdued with dangerous drugs. The Alzheimer's Society says poor training in dementia care is a major problem.
It's a picture only too familiar to HELEN SEYMOUR. For the past five months she's worked as an advocate for elderly people in London care homes, witnessing the shocking treatment of vulnerable residents by inept - and often callous - care workers...
A tiny elderly woman cries out, weeping as she struggles to stand. But a young man has her pinned to the chair by her arms and after 20 minutes she gives up - her wailing drops to a low moan and her red-ringed eyes gaze up hopelessly.
The woman suffers from dementia and had become distressed when her daughter's visit ended. She'd tried to get to the window to wave her daughter off but the care worker had decided this wasn't convenient - and asked a cleaner to hold her down in a chair.
Seeing this shocking act shortly after starting my new job this year left me shaken. But over the past five months I've seen many similar incidents.
I've witnessed a culture of care workers treating residents in a humiliating way - elderly people suffering from dementia being deliberately confused and ridiculed by staff, stripped of their dignity, starving simply because no one is helping them eat, and left in soiled clothes.
And although I've worked in many social care sectors, nothing prepared me for the sheer desperation and neglect experienced by old people in these institutions.
Every week I visit four care homes in London, for around three hours each. Like most residential homes, they are run by a private company, contracted by the local council.
Almost all residents are suffering from dementia or other mental illnesses, or have suffered a stroke that has left them physically disabled.
The first thing that struck me is the inappropriate, patronizing way residents are spoken to.
Most staff interaction with residents is functional - 'Have a biscuit' or 'Let's go to the loo' - but they also ruffle hair, pinch cheeks, and even make baby noises, saying: 'Aren't you sweet'?
In one home I've even seen staff kissing residents on the lips - affectionately, perhaps, but entirely inappropriately.
If a resident spills something, they're scolded like a child and called 'naughty'. This is no way for one adult to speak to another. Once, I saw a staff member bellow at a confused elderly man, who had come out of his bedroom naked, that he was 'disgusting'.
It also shocked me to see some staff deliberately winding up residents who were already confused. I saw one very frail woman suffering from severe dementia ask if she was going to the shops that day.
A member of staff kept egging her on, saying 'Yes, dear, we're going shopping soon', and then laughing to a colleague. The older woman just stood there, coat on, with no idea that it was never going to happen. This went on for almost an hour.
Of course, not all care workers are deliberately cruel - many just don't understand dementia.
Some tell me they press the buzzer for help when this happens, only for an orderly to come in, switch it off and tell them they'll come back later as they're too busy. I often see residents with black eyes and bruises, having fallen trying to get to the toilet unaided in the night.
Every morning medication is handed out. Most residents are given sedatives or sleeping pills although there seems to be no reason for this apart from the fact that
Those whose families visit are always clean and dressed well. However, many have no one. They are the ones in ill-fitting clothes, trousers held up by string, shoes with no socks, soiled, or half-dressed. At first if I saw someone semi-dressed, I would alert a care worker. They would dismiss me, saying 'I'll deal with it when I can'.
Eventually I gave up trying.
One of the most shocking aspects to life in these homes is the lack of regard for privacy. In addition to toilets in rooms, there are two or three disabled toilets accessible from the living area.
Every time I visit a resident is on the loo and either they or the care worker has forgotten to shut the door. I've also seen staff members standing over residents while they go to the toilet, chatting, with the door open, while other residents wander in and out.
I recently discovered a client who has not stepped out of the door once in six months. Put anyone in such a place, without any hope of getting out and about, and is it any surprise they are depressed? But the residents themselves won't speak up or complain. They've lived through the War, and say, wearily: 'Oh well, I've had it worse'. Yet many tell me repeatedly: 'I just want to die'.
I try to convince them otherwise but, in truth, if this is how we are going to treat the most vulnerable and elderly in our society, then they would be better off dead.
Helen Seymour is a pseudonym.
Imagine yourselves living in those environments, in your twilight years! None of us can guarantee that we wouldn't end up in care facilities. What many of us, including myself, are trying to do is to fight to ensure that our twilight years will not be spent in those environments. Elder Abuse is not just a problem in UK, USA or Australia. It is happening all over the world.
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