Jewish organisations throughout Britain which deal with the care of older people have backed calls by the charity, Age UK, not to impose “blanket restrictions” or a “one-size-fits-all” policy if and when lockdown is eased. There are believed to be plans in place to restrict the movement of all people aged 70 and over, regardless of their medical conditions.
The support of bodies such as Cosgrove Care and Newark Care in Scotland, and The Fed in Manchester, echoes concern expressed on Sunday by the British Medical Association and the Royal College of GPs. A BMA statement said that “a blanket ban on any section of the population being prohibited from lockdown easing would be discriminatory and unacceptable”.
Last week Caroline Abrahams, the charity director of Age UK, made a vehement case for paying attention to the varying needs of older people. In a strongly-worded plea to the government, she said: “Proposing that everyone beyond a certain age puts their life on hold and hunkers down for many months or longer is, by definition, ageist and deeply objectionable”.
Speaking to the JC, Ms Abrahams said: “There are suggestions that the way Covid-19 works, it can have a particular impact on people as they get older, which can make you more severely ill, and more likely to die”. It was not simply the case, she said, “that as people get oder they are more likely to have other health conditions that make them more susceptible. But doctors are saying that there may be more to it than that, that there’s something about what happens to people’s bodies as they get older which means that if they do get the virus, they can have a much more serious reaction to it.”
Crucially, however, such theories — untested — have not yet been published. “The public doesn’t know if there is scientific evidence for this. It means that we are left with where we are, a kind of convenient shorthand which skates over the individual differences between people of a particular age. We all know that some people in their 70s are incredibly fit, running around, on their bikes, all sorts of things. Equally there are people in their 30s and 40s who aren’t very fit at all. So that intuitively feels unfair to a lot of older people”.
Ms Abrahams, who said she was “one-eighth Jewish and am very proud of that”, acknowledged that the Jewish community was at the same time proportionally more long-lived than the general community, and also that its death statistics from the virus, in comparison to the general population, were high. “But the virus is no respecter of persons, and it seems that any faith community, which meets and operates in close and intimate conditions, is susceptible”.
She said it was incumbent on the government to publish as much scientific evidence as possible. “And also not to make the lockdown exit conditions compulsory. If they do that, there will always be a bolshie group of older people who won’t have it, thank you very much. The vast majority of older people are sensible — but it is better, if there are to be measures which impact on older people, that they are put in the context of the whole population. Treat people like grown-ups and tell them straight.”
In Scotland, the two main Jewish organisations working with older people are Cosgrove and Newark Care. Heather Gray, Cosgrove’s chief executive, says they work with people in Glasgow, East Renfrewshire and Lanarkshire and provide services to those in their own homes.
“The virus has been so diverse in its impact, that a blanket solution once lockdown is eased would not be helpful,” she said.
She said a major part of Cosgrove’s work currently dealt with “the sheer isolation and the impact of the lockdown on older people”. Cosgrove, which relies heavily on volunteers, has been dealing with more than 200 people, many of them shielding at home — and many of them in their 90s or early 100s.
Newark Care, which began life as the Jewish Old Age Home for Scotland, now runs two homes, Westacres and Burnfield, which are open to non-Jewish residents as well. Jack Ryan, Newark’s chief executive, says the average age of the homes’ residents is around 91 or 92 — and, despite lockdown being imposed earlier in Scotland than in the rest of the UK, the virus has had a devastating effect on Newark’s clients. In one of the homes, with a capacity of around 40, 14 people to date have died from Covid-19.
Mr Ryan, too, agreed that there was not a “one-size-fits-all” way out of the lockdown. However, he and his team are thinking of creative ways to help families make better contact with the home residents, because he believes part of the problem of lockdown is the frustration and isolation at not being able to see children and grandchildren. “We’re hoping to build a summerhouse, where people can meet”, he said, “we are very conscious that people need to get together”.
In Manchester, Bernie Garner, the director of community services for The Fed, the central Jewish welfare body, deals with people needing care across the community, both in their own homes and in the giant Heathlands Village complex. The social work team supports 200 people over the age of 70 across Greater Manchester — out of a total of 491 households last year.
She said there was a disproportionate effect from the virus on many sectors of the community: “children, where families are struggling with isolation, poverty, and the lack of structure that schools have been giving; a rise in domestic violence, both emotional and physical; and a surge in mental health problems. We have a mental health support group that has been running for 22 years, twice a week, that can’t meet at the moment. We are already seeing more people with mental health issues because of the stress and anxiety of not having enough money.”
She predicted a “carer breakdown” if there were to be a blanket solution on easing lockdown. “What we do is enable carers [of people in their own homes] to take a break by coming to one of our groups, or we send a volunteer into the family home while the carer goes out. That social lifeline is not going to be there if the blanket lockdown on older people is extended for much longer. The carers will be in dire need of our support and it won’t be available if we are not allowed to go into their homes”.