In Melbourne and its surrounds, aged care is a hot topic at the moment. A high percentage of the deaths from COVID-19 have happened across aged care homes. At time of writing, 125 aged care homes across Victoria have infected residents and staff.
Merle Mitchell is 85 and in care. Last week she told the Aged Care Royal Commission that she looks around at her fellow residents and knows that most would rather they were dead. She herself wakes up every morning disappointed to still be alive.
“I know I am here until I die so every morning when I wake up I think ‘damn, I’ve woken up.’”
Merle Mitchell is well remembered in social welfare circles. She worked tirelessly as a member of Victorian Council of Social Service and Australian Council of Social Service as a contributor to social welfare policies. She has been an exceptional contributor to our common good.
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My mother Anne Costello is in another aged care residence that is under complete lockdown. Recently she turned 91. She too has contributed much throughout her life; within the educational field in her working life and as an exceptional mother and grandmother.
She saw the televised footage of Merle’s comments and told me she felt saddened.
“It’s not all that bleak,” she said. “We’re well taken care of. The carers are trying so hard to keep our spirits up. I try to encourage them.”
“The carers are trying so hard to keep our spirits up. I try to encourage them.” – Anne Costello
Both responses bookend the range of feelings and despair in this time.
There will be much that needs to be unravelled on the issue of whether there was an adequate Government COVID plan for aged care. In the meantime, scores of Melbourne families are coming to terms with the loss of their loved ones – in circumstances that for many were unexpected and where the deceased was isolated and died alone.
All we hear are grim statistics from our beleaguered Premier who fronts the cameras each day with a breakdown of the numbers “… three women in their 60s, four men and two women in their 70s, three men and one woman in their 80s and two men and three women in their 90s …” and so the numbers roll on.
No names, no stories of their lives. Maybe they are women like Merle and Anne who have had active lives. We do not hear that. No public funerals are permitted. But all of them would have a rich story of a life lived, of families small or large who will miss them.
This period of COVID is making us face up to many things. If we look at the experience of other countries I think the Australian community can be proud of our leaders. They have done remarkably well and have been responsive to all the health advice. Let’s give them credit for having done things none of us thought imaginable – like putting homeless people into decent accommodation, and making sure businesses, churches and not for profits have access to JobKeeper to keep their trained staff on the books.
But sadly, there also have been mistakes, bad judgements, and poor decisions. And we are feeling the impact of those now. Victoria is on its knees with so many shops shut, streets empty even in the middle of the day, and a curfew to keep us in our homes at night. I never thought I would live to see days like this.
Vulnerability, as opposed to arrogance and self-sufficiency, is also a blessing.
We are indeed all fragile humans struggling to get by. But vulnerability, as opposed to arrogance and self-sufficiency, is also a blessing.
We are dependent on the good will of others to protect us – by wearing masks and getting tested and keeping away from essential work shifts if sick. None of us is given a leave pass to be ‘sovereign citizens’ refusing masks or even to putting our economic needs ahead of health concerns for the frail.
Jesus said that “in as much as you did it unto the least of these, you did it unto me”. I think of the least of these as being the vulnerable in our community – the shut in, the mentally ill, the aged and infirm. What we are doing to protect them is in truth doing it for Jesus who is in our midst.
He is there in those aged care homes in the rooms of lonely folk, even those longing to die. He is there in the psych wards where disturbed minds are awake at night, scared and delusional. He is there with the ill in hospital waiting on cancer treatment to save their lives.
We all need ears to hear Jesus’s words again.
Tim Costello is the executive director of Micah Australia and a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.