How Covid-19 care home rules tore couple apart

A love brought to its knees: A wife reduced to glimpsing her husband through railings, it was the Mail’s front page that shocked Britain. Now, the couple’s family tell how maddening rules have torn them apart and ask – when will we end this injustice?

After 52 years of marriage, Dave and Irene Stallard are as devoted to each other as the day they met at college — bound together by a lifetime of shared happy memories.

Nothing could separate them; not the stroke which felled Dave 16 years ago, nor the heart problems which nearly killed him ten years later, nor the vascular dementia which then cruelly crept up on him.

Nothing, that is, until lockdown.

So the image of Irene, 74, kneeling at the fence outside her husband’s care home, gripping the railings as she gazed down at Dave, sitting in his wheelchair in the garden below, was heartbreaking.

Taken by their daughter, Miranda Gore Browne, it spoke more powerfully than any words of the desperation of those separated from loved ones in care homes to keep cherished connections alive.

Nothing could separate them; not the stroke which felled Dave 16 years ago, nor the heart problems which nearly killed him ten years later, nor the vascular dementia which then cruelly crept up on him. Nothing, that is, until lockdown

‘From the start of lockdown in March, we weren’t allowed to see Dad. His room overlooked the home’s internal courtyard, not the garden, so we couldn’t even see him through a window,’ says Miranda.

‘Mum phoned the care home in May to ask if they could wheel him into the garden so she could see him.

‘She rang me on May 3 and said: ‘They’re going to bring Dad out into the garden, would you come over?’

‘I’d just arrived and was getting out of the car when I saw Mum kneeling there. I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, that’s real love’, and just had to take a picture.

‘Mum was a teacher for 25 years and she was kneeling to be on Dad’s level in the same way she did with infants in her class, and I found it incredibly moving.

‘I wasn’t going to do anything with the photograph except send it to our family to say, ‘We’ve seen Dad’, but then my brother said: ‘I can’t stop thinking about that picture.’

The arresting image — which was published for the first time by the Mail this week — has become a defining image of our campaign to reunited loved ones for Christmas.

‘My only intention when I shared it on Twitter was to highlight my parents’ devotion. It wasn’t political,’ says Miranda. 

‘We were having a positive, emotional moment with Dad, so I have been very shocked by the reaction to the power of it.

After 52 years of marriage, Dave and Irene Stallard are as devoted to each other as the day they met at college — bound together by a lifetime of shared happy memories

‘It’s amazing that such a simple picture of love might just have the power to change the world. People have told us it’s stopped them in their tracks and opened their eyes.

‘When I took that photo of Mum and Dad, I had no idea it would end up being so much bigger than just us.’

Miranda says the hardest thing to cope with during the Covid crisis has been the enforced separation between her parents.

‘We had another railings visit on Dad’s birthday on May 7 and they have continued every now and then since then. After the easing of lockdown in July, Mum and I were allowed short visits every two weeks, sitting in a gazebo in the garden, but she misses Dad so much and it felt too long between visits.’

Miranda, until now better known as a finalist in the first series of The Great British Bake Off and a successful cookery author, has nothing but praise for the care home which has looked after her Dad since February 2019.

Both she and her mum, Irene, are incredibly grateful to the carers for protecting Dave, 79, from Covid during this pandemic and for allowing them as much contact as Government guidelines allow. What more can they do, she asks, when ‘their hands are tied’?

It is the ‘inhumane’ situation which has arisen from all the rules and regulations — causing the enforced separation to drag on — which has turned Miranda’s attention away from baking to campaigning.

Writing about the issue on her Instagram page, she received a flood of support when she voiced her frustration that ‘we could all be in pubs together after lockdown was lifted, but we couldn’t see Dad’.

Hers was one of many poignant stories highlighted by the Mail. Miranda speaks for every other relative when she says that, while all elderly residents are suffering through lack of contact with their families, those with dementia are in even greater need — without it, cognitive decline is known to accelerate.

‘It’s really hard to know how much Dad has deteriorated because we can only see him for half an hour every week or other week,’ says Miranda.

‘The other day, Mum was so looking forward to seeing him. She hadn’t seen him for two weeks and he was really low, wouldn’t look up.

‘She was struggling to make conversation because there was so much pressure. She was thinking, ‘I only have half an hour.’ Like everyone else in this situation, we’re concerned about the lack of stimulation.

‘We know we are much luckier than some people, who have only been allowed window visits, as we’ve been able to sit with him in the garden.

‘It’s been so disturbing for so many people, and the ones who have deteriorated the most are those who have not had that human contact.

‘Dad still knows who we are and can talk, but every time we go we worry because they can decline quite quickly.

‘It’s also very hard when Dad’s having moments of lucidity and wants to know why we can’t see him more.

‘I said to him a couple of weeks ago: ‘Don’t worry, Mum is coming next week, so you won’t be alone for long’ and he said: ‘Surely you can do better than that and make more arrangements?’

‘I’m trying not to let the sad side come in, because once it does, it’s harder and I try to create powerful moments to share with my two brothers, one of whom hasn’t been able to see Dad at all because of local lockdowns.’

Irene, Miranda and her brothers, Paul, 49, and Tim, 42, yearn for the chance to continue ‘making memories’ with Dave before his condition makes it impossible. They want to add to all those childhood memories, which they love to reminisce over with their father because they remain intact in his long-term memory and bring him back to them.

Born on the Isle of Wight, the son of a dairy farmer, Dave Stallard fell in love with Irene when she was a trainee teacher at the London college where he had recently completed an electrical and engineering course.

He went on to have a successful career as a railway engineer before moving into management.

After taking early retirement, he worked as a consultant, travelling abroad to advise other countries on their rail networks.

‘We had a very Swallows and Amazons childhood, with so many adventures. We had a campervan and a boat, and there was lots of fun with Dad throwing us off jetties in the Lake District to test life-jackets and sailing in Chichester harbour,’ recalls Miranda.

‘Being an engineer, he’d always be in the garden trying to get an outboard motor working in a bin filled with water, or on the driveway changing the campervan engine. He’d make little steam engines with my brother. He was Professor Brainstorm.

‘Mum and Dad were never the type to sit still for long and because we had train passes, we’d go off for day trips to Cambridge or York.’

Always the picture of health, Dave’s first stroke 16 years ago shocked the family. It happened during the week Miranda gave birth to her eldest child, Thomas. However, he appeared to make a full recovery.

He and Irene couldn’t have been more proud when Miranda, a food buyer for Marks & Spencer, made the final of the first Great British Bake Off in 2010, spawning a new career as a cookery author and food columnist.

But six years ago, after being referred to a chest consultant with what they thought was pneumonia, it was discovered that Dave had a serious heart condition which required surgery. He collapsed at home in West Sussex before it could be carried out.

‘He was rushed to Worthing Hospital and, after all these brain scans, we were told the bleeds on his brain were so significant they didn’t think he’d make a recovery,’ says Miranda, who as well as Thomas, has a daughter, Eleanor, 12, and son, Henry, eight.

‘They had intubated him and put him in intensive care, and I called my brothers, one of whom was on a research project in China, to get here because we didn’t think he’d make it, but somehow he survived. The next day they took the tube out and he was still alive.

‘I said to the consultant: ‘If you can get him to the end of the week, I’m bringing in his favourite cake’, and I was stood at home literally crying into his favourite Victoria Sponge, thinking: ‘I’m never going to make this for him again.’ I took it in a Tupperware box and he could hardly lift his head and had to be spoon fed, but I could see the jam dripping down his chin, and he was so happy.

‘He had ten days in intensive care and was then moved to a ward, then to rehab and then back home. After that, we felt every day with him was a blessing.’

Diagnosed with vascular dementia six years ago, Dave was lovingly cared for at home for five years until his condition had deteriorated to the point that Irene could no longer cope.

‘It was very difficult to make the decision to put Dad into care, but it allowed Mum to have a relationship with him again instead of just being his carer,’ says Miranda. ‘No matter how hard it’s been, we’ve tried to treasure all the special moments, so we’ve had lots of family events since he was diagnosed with dementia.

‘Dad was a big part of my youngest Henry’s christening. Then, for our mum’s 70th, we held a party in the garden. For their 50th wedding anniversary, we booked the village hall and I did all the food.

‘It’s all about creating memories, even though it hasn’t been easy and it’s been really hard for Mum. I suppose I am a bit obsessed about that, and when he went into a care home we decided to keep on making those memories.

‘We didn’t want him stuck in there not doing anything, so one day we drove up to the Downs — with me sat in the back like a child — and I’d made iced buns and a picnic basket,’ says Miranda who, before Covid, visited her father twice a week, always taking a home-made cake or biscuits.

‘Mum also drove him to see me. He couldn’t get out of the car, so the kids would get in the back and talk to him, taking out crispy cakes we’d made, and for Christmas he came to us and it was wonderful with all of us working as a team.

‘Up until lockdown, we had a really good time with Dad. It was really special, but he’s not been out since the first week of March.

Miranda says the hardest thing to cope with during the Covid crisis has been the enforced separation between her parents. The pair are pictured above on their wedding day in 1968

‘When Mum got the call saying lockdown was happening, it was all very sudden, and we thought ‘hopefully it won’t be too long’ and tried to stay positive.

‘We talked endlessly about ‘should we bring him home?’ But we felt it better he stay in the home where he would be safe. We knew all the carers and how good they were. We had spent ages making his room lovely.

‘I emailed everyone I knew and asked them to send him a postcard, and Mum created a memory box, with things from his childhood, which she took into the home. Mum has been amazing. She has always been super capable. She’s a church elder, teacher, governor and parish councillor, but this has been so tough for her the longer the separation has gone on.

‘What I think should have happened is that the Government should have allowed one relative to be designated as a carer, particularly for those with dementia, and allowed them contact following the same regulations care home staff adhere to.

‘Mum would have been very willing from the start to be tested, to self-isolate and wear PPE to be near Dad.’

This week Care Minister Helen Whately announced to MPs during a Westminster Hall debate that a Covid-19 testing pilot for the families and friends of care home residents will begin on Monday in 30 care homes in four local authority areas.

Admitting that she’d had ‘sleepless nights’ over the suffering caused by the suspension of care home visits, the minister said the pilot scheme, enabling loved ones to reunite safely, would, if successful, ‘roll out widely across the country in December.’

Keeping residents safe from Covid outbreaks while allowing them the benefit of seeing their relatives was, she said ‘an incredibly hard balance to strike.’

Miranda wishes there had been a quicker response to the problem, and that the campaign group Rights for Residents hadn’t had so much of a struggle to be heard.

‘If it happens quickly, then brilliant,’ says Miranda.

‘But it’s been very slow in coming, and for some people, it’s already too late. We are not visitors — we are family. A care home is an alternative to home, and should be somewhere we can have access to. Giving the care homes the support to allow this should have happened so much sooner.’

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