The horrific treatment of elderly residents at the Dunmurry Manor care home has shocked many. But as Eamonn McCann argues, this revelation is not an isolated incident but the latest example of a scandalous system of institutionalised abuse.
Among key things to keep in mind about the “horrific catalogue of inhuman treatment” of elderly residents of Dunmurry Manor care is that there’s nothing new about any of it and that abuse of this sort is by no means confined to Northern Ireland. Over recent years there has been a stream of scandals about the mistreatment of elderly people in care homes across these islands.
A report by the NI Human Rights Commission in March 2012 exposed the lack of care in care homes across the North: frail people left to wait too long for toilet visits; residents heavily sedated with no good reason, gross and humiliating invasions of personal care and privacy; unjustified use of restraints; gaps of more than 15 hours between meals; residents having to be taken to hospital for dehydration; tables used to barricade residents into their rooms.
The NIHRC report, “In Defence of Dignity,” declared that: “It is now of paramount importance that government, the ultimate duty-bearer, ensures that the necessary structures and resources are in place to enable the staff to carry out their work in compliance with the international human rights standards.” The report called on the Executive to intervene and make drastic changes.
But it is clear from the Dunmurry Manor scandal that we still have care homes in the North which, to put it mildly, fall woefully short of international human rights standards.
We have been here before. In February last year, a senior care worker at Bloomsfield Private Nursing Home in east Belfast was struck off for “physical and mental abuse” of dementia patients. The abuse included tying patients’ nightdresses between their legs to stop them getting at their incontinence pads.
In England in June last year, 13 people were convicted of “organised and systematic” abuse of adults with learning disabilities at two care homes in Devon – barricaded into empty rooms for long periods without heating, food, furniture, television or toilet facilities. The manager of one of the homes was sentenced to 14 months imprisonment.
In March this year researchers at University College London asked more than 1,500 carers at 92 homes across Britain whether they had witnessed or taken part in “troubling behaviour.” The researchers identified “at least some abuse or neglect” in 91 of the 92 care homes, involving more than half of respondents.
In 2012, the National Centre for the Protection of Older People in the Republic studied 63 nursing homes—44 in the private sector, 19 in the public sector—and reported that 57.6% of staff said that they had observed one or more “neglectful behaviours” by other staff in the preceding 12 months; ignoring residents when they called for assistance; ignoring pleas to be taken to the toilet; psychological abuse and physical abuse.
“If you died Ivy, I wouldn’t bring you to the toilet,” a care worker was recorded telling a resident with severe learning disabilities. On another occasion, Ivy was dragged across the floor by the hood of her jumper while other members of staff kicked her.
In a follow-up article, the Irish Independent revealed that 160 complaints of neglect and abuse in care homes across the State were not being investigated.
These cases are drawn more or less at random from a file on the abuse of our most vulnerable citizens.
What happened at Dunmurry Manor didn’t come out of the blue and cannot be explained by reference to peculiarities of the system in the North.
There is a host of reasons for these dreadful occurrences. One has to do with chronic under-funding of the health and care system and the relentless privatisation of care facilities, leading to an increasing number of unqualified staff. In many cases which have come to court, it is evident that many staff members responsible for ill-treatment were unqualified and unfit for the job.
Health unions here, across the water and in the South have been making these arguments for years
According to Unison general secretary Dave Prentis, the number of care workers on zero-hours contracts in the UK has jumped from one in ten to one in seven in the past year.
Meanwhile, private companies undercut one another in bidding for care home contracts. The only way they have of cutting costs so as to make a profit is to reduce spending per resident.
We need a massive increase in funding of health and social care. Theresa May announced an extra £4 billion for the NHS last weekend. Whether it will ever materialise is far from certain. But, anyway, the figure isn’t even in the ball-park. £40 billion would be a start.
Health Not Profit
Is that sort of money there? It is, and more besides. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament calculates that the project for replacing the Trident nuclear submarine force will come to £205 billion. Even if that’s too high a figure, it’s clear that the money is available alright, but is being spent on other things.
Only a fundamental shift in the balance of spending can address the vital issues raised by Dunmurry Manor. This means building radical mass movements which can take on the governments and force real change. The unions should be at the heart of it. They might be surprised at the volume of support they’d receive from a public which cherishes the NHS and is increasingly fed up with phony promises and evasion.
A huge shout for practical action rather than fiery words at the ICTU rally for the NHS in Belfast on June 30th would help.
Supporters of the establishment parties say that this is People Before Profit pie-in-the-sky. Well, what’s their alternative?