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Condemned to a life sentence

We treat prisoners of war better than care home residents

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


“Isn’t it good to be alive!”

With those words, in the wonderful 1971 film, Nicholas and Alexandra, Tsar Nicholas II opens the scene that will end in his murder.

While being used to convey just the right pathos, as the viewer braces for the terrible actions of Revolutionary Socialism that we know are about to be unleashed, the being alive of which the Tsar speaks is not meant in its purely biological sense. He says this as he and his family open their post for the first time in a long time and read and share stories about their friends and family, now scattered across the world in the cataclysm that had engulfed Russia.

Not much has been written about the scandal of the life we have forced living occupants of care homes to live since the pandemic began

Being alive that day meant enjoying friendship and love and laughter despite the darkness. It set up in beautiful dramatic juxtaposition the two meanings of being alive, and these are meanings it has become desperately difficult to discuss right now.

Since the pandemic struck, the entire national discourse has focused on saving lives, in the strict biological sense. What has often been missing from the debate is the question of what it  actually means to be alive.

Partially this is because we have lost the ability to talk about death. One of the depressing things as a clergyman is hearing grieving families tell you that they feel under pressure to be “back to normal” almost as soon as the funeral is over. We haven’t, as a nation, really known how to deal with death since the First World War, when our elaborate Victorian rites of grief collapsed under the weight of enormous casualties.

Since then we have seen the end of the broadly Christian philosophical worldview which used to underpin our national ethical framework, but have found nothing that can adequately replace it. This makes it far harder to have a debate about life, its value, and what being alive means. This is a problem, because it leaves us incapable of making decisions which rest upon shared ethical presumptions and leaves us at a default setting of assessing everything by its simplest definition, ruining lives for the sake of life, and killing in the name of care.

And care homes are the big example here. There has been much discussion of the Care Homes Scandal, by which we mean the astonishingly large number of people in care homes who died over the course of the first wave of the pandemic. Not much has been written about the scandal of the life we have forced living occupants of care homes to live since the pandemic began.

To be personal for a moment, I have seen this happen to my father, once a war correspondent for The Times, now suffering from such crippling depression and anxiety that he was an inpatient in a psychiatric hospital when the pandemic began. While in hospital he caught the dreaded Covid, recovered, and was promptly dislodged into a care home (because his immediate needs were too great for my mother to be able to handle at home).

This man, with deep drug-resistant depression, did not have any psychiatric input from any professional for six months, has been in effective solitary confinement since March, and has been denied the presence of those he loves, denied even the sight of human faces, all hidden behind masks. If we treated prisoners of war like this, it would be a breach of the Geneva Convention.

I am not the only priest who knows of people, well past their three score years and ten, who, faced with months of isolation and the absence of any physical sight of their families, chose to die. One, sometime of my parish, told her children that the only thing in life that gave her joy was seeing them and her grandchildren, and that if this was to be forbidden for months there was no point in staying alive. After saying this she stopped eating and drinking and died within the week. “Isn’t it good to be alive?” is a question to which the answer sometimes is “No.”

The stories of those suffering from dementia are even worse, crying through the day and night in uncomprehending social isolation, having been denied their last liberty: to wander their care homes and enjoy the one sense left to them, the hugging and holding of their fellow human beings.

We wouldn’t treat our pets like this, but we do it to our elderly. Why? Because, of course, we want to save their lives. We do it, we tell ourselves, out of love and kindness. We do it because the outrage over deaths in care homes means that ministers are too terrified to ask themselves what being alive actually means. To be fair to them, I’m not sure it is just the ministers’ fault. This is not a question most of the media are willing to ask either.

But these questions must be asked: to what extent do we accord people in care homes — wonderful people who have lived full and fascinating lives — the liberty of being able to assess their own risk, to weigh up the chance of losing some months or year against the loss of all contact with their families? Some will choose to prioritise physical life, others the joy of being alive, but it should be their choice.

In fear of death we have removed the joy of life from those with little time left to live. As the second wave comes, let us try to ensure that it is, as far as is possible, actually good to be alive.

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