Isolation Kills: why I am backing the Unlock Care Homes Campaign

By Dr Ali Haggett – mental health professional

 

There can be no greater emergency during this pandemic than the Government’s refusal to legislate for care home residents to have meaningful visits with their families. Of all the harms experienced during the lockdown period, the removal of families’ rights to see and hold their loved ones has struck me as the most brutal and unacceptable. Without legislation in place, families fear that many homes will continue to refuse visits until JCVI priority 1 groups have had their second vaccination which could be three months away.

Touch is Essential to Survival

I have worked in academic and community mental health and wellbeing for many years, with a particular interest in older people. There is incontrovertible evidence that isolation has serious deleterious effects on mental and physical health. Among the younger, healthy population, studies show that the impact of isolation on mortality is similar to that of well-known risk factors such as cigarette smoking. For care home residents, the risks are much higher. Those with dementia have fared particularly badly, as cognitive decline advances, many residents become hearing and/or sight impaired. As the sensory systems begin to fail, ‘touch’ becomes essential for survival. ‘Touch deprivation’ has been scientifically proven to increase stress, depression and anxiety, triggering a cascade of negative physiological effects. Telephone or video calls are essentially hopeless and often counterproductive.

As the sensory systems begin to fail, ‘touch’ becomes essential for survival. ‘Touch deprivation’ has been scientifically proven to increase stress, depression and anxiety, triggering a cascade of negative physiological effects.

Weight-loss, psychological deterioration, distress and agitation have been widely reported in residents denied meaningful contact with relatives. Residents do not understand why their families have effectively ‘disappeared’ and they feel abandoned. Physical and psychological deterioration are innately connected, and the harmful effects of isolation among many have reached alarming levels. This situation cannot be allowed to continue. As their recent Joint Statement stated earlier this month, Age UK argue strongly that, ‘Through the use of individual assessments, care homes should balance the risk of harm from the virus with the risk of harm from isolation’. It is simply unacceptable that we devalue the lives of our older relatives, isolating them from everything they know and love in the last weeks and months of their lives. I would encourage everyone to join Unlock Care Homes and campaign urgently on this matter.

About the author

Ali worked in academia for ten years as a university lecturer and researcher on mental health. She now works in the community, using reminiscence therapy and kinesiology as holistic therapies.