Engage: Care home death of 94-year-old war veteran should sound alarm bells in Government

There is a crisis of social care in Scotland and politicians need to make it a serious priority, writes Alex Cole-Hamilton.

It’s the 21st century, we live in the capital city of one the most affluent countries in the world and yet a 94-year-old war veteran died after losing a stone-and-a-half in a single month whilst living in a care home run by the Edinburgh Health and Social Care Partnership.

Malcolm Muirhead was my constituent. He was a resident in Drumbrae Care Home which opened in 2013. Following his death in 2018, a social work report raised serious concerns that by the end of his life he was being washed only once a week in a sink, that he was wearing a “dirtied jumper” with food stains on it and that he had bloated feet with overgrown nails and infected toes.

And it was reported last week that an unannounced visit by the Care Inspectorate in December found serious concerns about staff competence, the distribution of medication and the movement and handling of residents. The care home could be deregistered in February if serious improvements are not made. Since news of the latest inspection broke, I have been meeting with constituents who have family members living in the home. They are understandably very worried but largely unsurprised. They’ve told me some real horror stories:

  • A lady found asleep by relatives at lunchtime with a wad of scrambled egg from breakfast still in her mouth.
  • A gentleman with incontinence left for hours in soiled clothes.
  • A resident in abject pain waiting the best part of an hour for a member of staff to sign off on emergency pain relief.

The list goes on and on. It shames not only our council, a member of the partnership, but our entire approach to social care in this country.

Those family members I’ve spoken to this week are quick to say that there are many kind and dedicated staff in the home, but they seem to lack training. Many vacancies in the home have gone unfilled, with a need for managers to engage agency staff. In turn, these agency workers have little understanding of local procedure and no relationship with residents to speak of.

This is symptomatic of a crisis in social care in Scotland. We pay people more money to stack shelves in supermarkets than we do to provide, intimate, personal, round-the-clock care to vulnerable people in both care homes and in their own homes. As such it isn’t hard to see why we can’t fill these posts. The knock-on impact means that people can’t be helped to live at home or offered a place in a residential setting. This causes an interruption in flow throughout the whole of our health service, with people, well enough to go home, waiting months to be discharged from hospital for want of a care package.

We need to make social care a profession of choice and we should reward it handsomely. We should aspire to see highly qualified candidates competing for rare openings in prestigious, award-winning public sector homes and care offered by the state should set the gold standard in provision. With an ageing population and an increase in the prevalence of dementia, consideration of this problem should be cresting the parliamentary agenda right now with full cross-party support and focus, but it isn’t and that needs to change.

In his book Being Mortal, American clinician Atul Gawande describes human life as a story, defined by its key moments and principal characters rather the day-to-day balance of success and defeat and as with all good stories the ending matters.

That someone like Malcolm Muirhead should risk his life in defence of our nation, then live out his days in a public sector care setting deprived of hygiene, sustenance and dignity makes me very angry and it should sound alarm bells throughout the corridors of government.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western. Picture (c) Tom Eden / PA Wire.

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