By Aasma Day
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A “real hero” who escaped the Nazis, only to find himself conscripted to the mines in England as he tried to forge a better life. A ‘fun-loving’ mother and grandmother who spent some of her final years helping dementia patients, despite being affected by it herself.
These are just some of the people in care homes who have unexpectedly died from coronavirus. They had lived their lives to the full, but none of them – nor their relatives – had expected them to be taken by a disease that was almost unheard of just a few months ago. And they had certainly not expected to die alone.
While the statistics around the number of deaths from Covid-19 in care homes have been shocking, those headlines do not tell the individual stories of the victims – or the families whose lives have now been emptied of someone incredibly special.
The issue of coronavirus related deaths in care homes has been a contentious one as the figures are not included in the daily death tolls.
The National Care Forum estimates that more than 4,000 elderly and disabled people have died across all residential and nursing homes so far during the Covid-19 pandemic.
HuffPost UK spoke to some of the families affected.
Even when test results confirmed their worst fears, the relatives of Joan Cavanagh still expected her to be “bloody minded enough to beat it just for the sake of it”.
Joan, who was known as Aunty Joan or “AJ” to her family, was 100 years old, and described as a “real character”. She had already ensured that everyone would know about her life – dictating her own eulogy to her great niece Suzanne Roynon at her birthday two years ago.
But despite this, they had fully expected AJ to be celebrating turning 101 this July.
Joan was the youngest of four children and described herself as a “twinkle in her father’s eye” when he returned wounded from World War I.
After leaving school, she trained to be a teacher but just as she qualified, World War II started. Joan taught throughout the war at a school in Sheffield, and clearly remembered the Sheffield Blitz.
After a number of moves to pursue her career, Joan met her husband Kenneth, who was also a teacher, at a school in Denton.
Joan gave up work in the hope of having a family. But sadly, the couple were unable to have children.
However Kenneth rose through the ranks and became a headteacher, and the pair moved around as his career took him to various schools.
Tragedy struck when at 59, Kenneth developed kidney failure. He retired, but his condition deteriorated rapidly and heartbreakingly, he died while Joan was in hospital having eye surgery, leaving her utterly devastated.
Suzanne said: “Joan’s life had revolved around Kenneth and they did everything together. He had been her world and she was bereft.”
After retiring from teaching, Joan began volunteering for Age Concern. She spent 14 years delivering books to the elderly – although often her clients were younger than her. She was also a guide at a local museum.
In 2004, when Joan was 84, Suzanne’s cousins in Buxton suggested she moved closer to them so they could keep an eye on her.
She spent time with her sisters while they were alive and after they died, the family – including 10 great nieces and nephews, and 26 great-great nieces and nephews and three great-great-great nieces and nephews – ensured Aunty Joan was never left out.
Suzanne said: “Aunty Joan only went into the nursing home in Buxton in October, and lived independently on her own until she was 100 and three months.
“She didn’t want to go into a nursing home but had a couple of falls and although the family living around her were wonderful, they realised she needed someone on hand at the call of a bell rather than the call of a telephone.”
Aunty Joan had absolutely no filter or volume control and she was a real character and a useful source of gossip.Suzanne Roynon
“She was very blessed as she had family around her and saw someone virtually every day.”
Suzanne, an interiors therapist and author, told HuffPost UK the family were distraught when the lockdown started, as they were unable to visit Joan after looking after her and seeing her so regularly for more than 25 years.
However, one of her great-great nieces – a community nurse in Buxton – was able to visit Joan a few times.
A few weeks ago, Joan suffered a fall at the nursing home and was taken to hospital. She also had a bit of pneumonia but had beaten that off several times before.
Suzanne said: “When AJ went back to the care home from hospital, a couple of days later, we received a phone call telling us a few residents had been diagnosed with Covid-19 so they were testing her for it.
The general consensus in the family was that she was bloody minded enough to beat it just for the sake of it.”Suzanne Roynon
“Sadly, the test results came back as positive. But even then, she was her somewhat cantankerous self and although we were worried, the general consensus in the family was that she was bloody minded enough to beat it just for the sake of it.
“However, she started to deteriorate and despite our prayers, she died at the start of April.“
Suzanne said despite the shock, it had been a comfort for the family to know that her great-great niece the community nurse had been with her when she died.
“Aunty Joan was lucid and able to talk right until the day before her death,” Suzanne said. “She died surrounded by photographs of herself with Kenneth.”
Suzanne believes Joan was lucky as she had a family who cared deeply for her right to the end. But she says other care home residents might not be so lucky during this pandemic, and worries some will be forgotten amid the headlines..
“They are not just statistics. Every single one of them had a history and were loved.”
Almost the entire family were together at a party for Joan’s 100th birthday last year. Suzanne remembered: “She showed us her birthday card from the Queen and was so proud of it.
“Aunty Joan had absolutely no filter or volume control and she was a real character and a useful source of gossip.
“We found out a lot about our grandparents that they would probably have preferred to be airbrushed from history!”
Although Joan’s funeral could only be attended by a handful of people, her family are hoping to have a big memorial party for her in the summer.
Suzanne said: “We will have a huge memorial party after lockdown and I will read her eulogy and we will laugh about the silly memories and celebrate her life.”
Ziggy Bernstein had escaped the Nazis as a child, survived life down the mines, and endured xenophobic taunts for being “foreign”.
But despite his tough early life, Ziggy “had a marvellous sense of humour,” Judy Downey, his sister, explained.
“He was very positive and never complained about anything despite everything he had been through.”
Ziggy died at the age of 93 at a care home in North London, on the same day he was released from hospital after being treated for coronavirus.
He was born in Berlin to Jewish parents who grew up in Poland, but had moved to Germany as they felt it was more liberal and open.
However, when Ziggy was eight, his father was arrested by the Gestapo who told him to come back with his paperwork proving his citizenship.
Judy, 82, told HuffPost UK: “My father did not go back to the Gestapo as he knew what would happen as he didn’t have German citizenship.
“My father went to London where he had contacts and my brother went back to Poland with my mother.
“So my brother was a German little boy, then a Polish little boy and then an English little boy when my father sent for him and my mother.”
My brother had quite a tough life. He probably saw some horrible things in Germany as a child but he never spoke about it.”Judy Downey
Ziggy was speaking English fluently within a year. He wasn’t eligible for grammar school and when he was 17, he was recruited to the army. However, his mother didn’t want him to join as she knew it was dangerous.
Ziggy instead became a “Bevin Boy”, young men conscripted to work in the coal mines.
After surviving that, he did an apprenticeship and was studying for a degree in economics when his father died when he was 21. So he instead took over the family business working with a trimmings company.
Judy said: “My brother had quite a tough life. He probably saw some horrible things in Germany as a child but he never spoke about it.
“He then worked in the mines and fought for this country in a way a lot of people don’t know about.
“When he came to the UK, he was teased for being German when he wasn’t as he had a foreign name.
“He was a real hero and a special person and he had a marvellous sense of humour.”
Ziggy lived in Edgware and had three children – a daughter and twin sons. He went into a care home about two-and-a-half years ago after becoming increasingly frail. His wife had died about 18 years previously.
Judy was contacted by her nephew about three weeks ago, telling her Ziggy had been taken into hospital from the care home.
When she called the hospital, she was told he had coronavirus. “He was in hospital for about 10 days. Then he went back to the care home and died that same day.
“None of us were able to say goodbye and that is terribly sad.”
Judy, who is chairperson of the Relatives & Residents Association, thinks it is “shameful” the way people in care homes have been treated during this pandemic.
“These people are being treated as collateral damage because they are old.” she told HuffPost UK. “It is as though they are ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
“It is terribly discriminatory. On the one hand, they are saying people over 70 are more vulnerable. But then they have not been testing in care homes or protecting the staff there.
“Everyone deserves better. It is not just the fact they are having a nasty death as a result of this virus, but the fact they are cut off from everyone who loves and cares about them.
“My brother was quite old and frail, but he was entitled to a better death.”
Jacqueline Varley lived an extraordinary ordinary life, according to her family, and she was loved right until the end.
Jacqueline, who lived in Nottingham and died aged 80 on April 16, had been living in a specialist dementia care home in Bingham, Nottingham for the last five years and she was happy and looked after well.
Jacqueline was the youngest of four daughters who were much older than her and was born into abject poverty in a deprived and run down area of Nottingham.
She left school at the age of 15 and had to get special permission to leave school early to go to work as her family needed the money.
Jacqueline became a secretary and when she was in her mid-20s, she went to work for a printing company and met her husband Ken when she began working as his secretary.
My mum had a real enthusiasm for children and we always said that if she had had the chance, she would have made a fantastic teacher.Karen Standard
The couple had one daughter, Karen, who is married to David and has two sons.
Karen described her mother as “fun loving” and said she was like the “Pied Piper” as all the children would always end up at their house.
“My mum had a real enthusiasm for children and we always said that if she had had the chance, she would have made a fantastic teacher.
“She made an impact on lots of children’s lives and had lots of energy for them. Even before we had our boys, there would always be five or six kids from her street round her house playing with jigsaws and toys.”
While at school, Jacqueline had excelled in the school choir and she kept up her love of singing throughout her life.
She sang in the Nottingham Harmonic Society and sang at Karen and David’s wedding in Italy.
For her career, Jacqueline carried on working as a secretary until she had Karen. She then went to work as a waitress at a hotel in York before going on to work at York University as a personal assistant to the head of the cancer research team.
She had various PA roles including becoming PA for the vice chancellor at Nottingham University and she finished her career as PA to one of the directors at Boots head office in Nottingham.
Karen says they first spotted changes which were signs of early onset dementia in 2006, but Jacqueline hid it as much as she could from them.
Karen explained: “My dad used to cover it up as well. My mum was perfectly well apart from the signs of dementia and was very fit and swam miles every week as well as going out on huge walks with the dog.
“We only realised how bad the dementia was when we had her come to live with us when my dad was in hospital and he passed away in 2015.”
Jacqueline moved into Beauvale Care Home in Bingham, Nottingham in March 2015. Karen told HuffPost UK that as her mum was so fit and healthy, she could easily have passed for one of the carers – and they actually told her she was there to help.
“My mum was so mobile and active and did a lot to help look after the other patients and give a hand with the laundry. If the staff could have given her a uniform, I am sure they would have done!
“The care home is a specialist home for dementia patients and they were so lovely with her and made her feel so welcome and made the transition to living in the home as easy as possible.
“Every time we saw her, she would say: ‘When I leave here, I will write to the director of this hotel to tell him how brilliant it is.’”
Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the care home decided to lockdown to visitors a week before the official government lockdown.
But despite their precautions, a few weeks ago, the home confirmed that a couple of residents had come down with what appeared to be Covid-19 symptoms.
Then on the Tuesday, Karen received a telephone call saying her mum was not looking good and they were concerned, but on Wednesday, she had rallied. However, on the Thursday, care home staff called to say she was extremely poorly and if Karen and her husband David wanted to come to see her, they would arrange that and provide them with PPE.
However, soon after, the care home called to say that unfortunately, Jacqueline had gone.
Karen told HuffPost UK that if it hadn’t been for coronavirus, it wasn’t her mum’s time to go. “We knew she had dementia but she was happy and had quality of life.
“We had time to prepare for her death from dementia and it would have been less traumatic.
“During that last week, she would not have known what was happening and we wanted her to have the best end she could.
“Dying of this terrible disease Covid-19 is not the ending we would have wished for her.”
To me, it feels like there is an attitude of ‘they were going to die anyway’ and that is so terribly sad.”David Standard
David Standard, Jacqueline’s son-in-law, told HuffPost UK they are shocked the daily death figures for coronavirus do not include care homes when they are “decimating them.”
“Care home coronavirus deaths are like the forgotten numbers.” he said. “A huge swathe of people being wiped out by this.
“To me, it feels like there is an attitude of ‘they were going to die anyway’ and that is so terribly sad.
“It is also awful for the carers in these homes. Who is supporting them? They must feel like they are losing a fighting battle and their PPE has not been prioritised.”
Pat Cooper who lived in a care home in Chelmsford, died at the age of 94 at the end of March during the coronavirus pandemic.
Although she suffered from kidney disease, her family believe coronavirus was a factor and it certainly led to her life ending in a way they wouldn’t have wanted.
Pat grew up in Islington, North London in what is now a very affluent area. But then the large properties were divided into lodging rooms with several families living there with shared toilets and kitchens.
Pat was the eldest of three girls and her father John Dyson was a sailor and away at sea a lot while her mother Florrie, came from a poor family and was often sickly and not well nourished. As a result, as a child, Pat often had to look after her mother and sisters.
They lived through the war in London and were evacuated to Bexleyheath into a rented property.
Pat met her husband Selwyn Cooper, who was known as Dave, who lived in the same street, He was Welsh and one of 12 children who had moved from the mining valleys to find better employment.
They married while Dave was doing his National Service in the army just as the war was ending.
Daughter Trish Davies told HuffPost UK her parents both had their education cut short due to the war but were bright people. Dave became an electrical engineer and eventually worked for the Ministry of Technology.
My mother was a very warm person and a staunch believer in a better society and socialism.”Trish Davies
The couple had three children and eight grandchildren who they doted on and they were active members of the Labour Party. They went on to have eight great grandchildren.
Pat had various jobs as a shop assistant and in catering and eventually worked as an office administrator for a TV rental company.
Trish said: “My mother was a very warm person and a staunch believer in a better society and socialism.
“She was a busy mum as she had to work as we needed the money, but she did a lot of home baking and made lovely mince pies.
“After she retired, she became a governor of primary schools and eventually became the chair of one school board.
“She loved this as she was very interested in education and in children having the best start in life.”
Once the children had all left home, Pat and Dave enjoyed travelling abroad and were also keen gardeners and Pat loved the opera.
In January 1999, Pat was devastated when her husband suddenly died having survived heart surgery several years earlier.
Pat remained independent but when she was in her 80s, she decided to move to Chelmsford to be nearer her son David and his children and grandchildren.
She moved to a family run care home in May 2019 after becoming frail and having a few falls.
Pat was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease about 15 years ago. But she was too frail to have dialysis so an end of life plan was put in place.
Daughter Trish says this was completely disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Pat was taken to hospital on March 28 and a doctor said they were concerned about her potassium levels and that there were possible Covid symptoms.
Pat died shortly afterwards with no family present.
Trish, 72, said: “The care home staff were amazing with my mum and the transformation in her when she went to live there was wonderful. She started eating properly and was enjoying visits from her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren and loved the home’s little dog.
“As soon as the pandemic became apparent, the care home manager told people not to visit which was absolutely the right thing to do.
“But we still talked on the telephone and my last contact with her was through FaceTime where she recognised me and we had a nice chat.”
We feel because of this virus, we lost those last few hours together and it was not the ending we wanted for her.”Trish Davies
However, Trish feels cheated as she feels the pandemic deprived her mother of a more peaceful end with her family sitting with her.
“My mum had a chronic condition which we knew would end her life at some point.
“But we feel because of this virus, we lost those last few hours together and it was not the ending we wanted for her.”
Trish added: “My mum worked hard all her life and contributed to society. These people still matter, even if they are old.
“They should not be written off and were entitled to be valued and respected until the end of their days.
“I feel it is shameful the way care homes and home care organisations have been treated as a ‘Cinderella’ service during this crisis.
“As a result, the lives of people in care homes have been put at grave risk and they have been denied the dignity, love and respect they were entitled to.
“The people working in care homes work extremely hard and are undervalued.”
Nadra Ahmed, chairperson of the National Care Association, told HuffPost UK that every death in a care home is a huge loss and it is wrong that they haven’t been counted in the daily coronavirus death figures.
“These are all individuals who had meaningful lives in society and we promised to look after them as a society.
“The fact that the country did not act quickly enough has taken some of them prematurely away from us.
“Everybody’s death counts and we owe it to these people to honour their lives.”