THE heartache being endured by elderly people locked down in care homes where visiting is banned due to the Covid-19 crisis has been laid bare by the daughter of a Stourbridge community stalwart who is now suffering from Alzheimers.

Catherine Marshall says her mum Dorothy Clarke has become a care home prisoner - having moved into residential care in late 2019, just a few months before the coronavirus lockdown began in March.

Dorothy, aged 92, has been a popular figure in the community for decades, having run a pensioners' group at St Peter's Centre, Pedmore, for more than 30 years and a similar group in Halesowen, and in 2013 she was honoured with an MBE for her services to elderly people in the Black Country.

Alzheimer's, however, has taken its toll over the last few years and following the death of her husband Terry, pictured below, in autumn 2019 - Dorothy moved into Oriel Care residential home in Hagley Road, Stourbridge.

Stourbridge News:

Daughter Catherine said she had tried to look after her mum at home but it proved too difficult.

Neither could have imagined, however, that they would be prevented from seeing each other for six months, or indefinitely, and that Dorothy would be left to feel forgotten - having built up a network of hundreds of friends over the years through her community endeavours.

Catherine told the News: "26 agonising weeks have passed since the doors were locked to any family member visiting their loved ones in a care home. At the beginning we all understood the seriousness of Covid-19 and the need to protect our vulnerable family.

"We waited patiently for news of an easing of restrictions. I am not alone in experiencing the agonising struggle we have all endured in being deprived of all contact with our loved ones and being expected to stand by and say nothing.

"As coronavirus has persisted far longer than any of us could have anticipated, the desperate pain, devastation and damage continues and increases.

"Then there was a glimmer of light. I was informed by the care home that I could visit for half an hour per fortnight, but I could visit.

"Only three visits later the doors were shut again with all visits stopped. Now we hear the doors could be closed for another six months."

Dudley Council has banned visiting in care facilities in the borough since cases of Covid-19 began to rise in recent weeks.

Many care home residents, however, have not seen or hugged their relatives since March when the coronavirus lockdown began.

Some homes, such as Oriel, had permitted occasional outdoor visits as highlighted by Catherine and at New Bradley Hall in Kingswinford residents have been able to see their loved ones through a specially-built prison-style visiting booth, created within a ground floor room, with an air-tight perspex screen and intercom communication system.

But even this was halted a few weeks ago as fears grew in Dudley about rising cases of the virus and the council issued a blanket ban on visiting care homes.

The facility was, however, re-opened just days after national charity Age UK highlighted the "risk of undermining older people's mental and physical health by cutting them off from those they love for a long time".

Charity director Caroline Abrahams said: "There is ample evidence from the pandemic to date that in these circumstances, many care home residents have gone downhill fast and a number have died prematurely - without ever seeing their families and friends again. It is also important to recognise that the word 'visiting' underplays the very active role that some loved ones play every day, by helping older people with dementia to eat and drink sufficiently.

"Getting the balance right between infection control on the one hand, and protecting residents' mental and physical health on the other is challenging, but some care homes are showing that it really can be done. We are firmly of the view that there is no place for blanket bans when it comes to care home visiting, and that individual risk assessments of people and places should be carried out instead."

New Bradley Hall, run by Black Country Housing, is believed to be among only a few care homes that have created safe visiting spaces.

Dorothy's daughter Catherine is now calling for local authorities and other care homes to think outside the box to enable residents to see their relatives - and she has set up a petition on and a Facebook group to highlight her mum's plight.

She said: "Mum has no real understanding of why she had been abandoned by all her family and her many, many friends or why she is now so very alone."

A phone was installed in her mother's room so they could try to stay in contact with each other and she said: "I try to comfort her. I try through my own tears to reassure her over and over that we do all still love her and remind her daily that we are all desperate to see her and hold her tight, longing to bring her the love and comfort that she deserves, the same comfort that she has given to hundreds of others through her full life.

"Some days her anguish turns to frustrated desperation, begging me to come for her, crying out to me 'I used to be someone'.

Stourbridge News: Dorothy Clarke pictured when she received her MBE in 2013Dorothy Clarke pictured when she received her MBE in 2013

"She begs me to help her, for me to touch her or return any glimmer of her former life. Then the almost daily threat to throw herself out of the window, or into the river follows.

"Roughly 180 heart-wrenching conversations have concluded with my mum preferring suicide rather than living with being abandoned. She is clearly suffering."

When she was finally able to see her mum, briefly in the summer, she was shocked at how she had deteriorated in the months of no visiting.

"Her eyes looked lost, her countenance bewildered, her spirit completely broken," she said - adding: "I could not stop the tears from flowing down my face. My mum had changed so much. She reached out to me begging for a hug or at least to hold hands, but it was not allowed. Tears trickled from her sad eyes, we tried to talk and then our 30 minutes were gone in a flash and she was escorted from me again.

"And here we are now, the doors are locked again. I received a letter from mum’s care home saying that only if my mum is at end of life will I be able to see her again, for the foreseeable future anyway."

Dorothy has since tested positive for coronavirus despite the "brutal restrictions to keep Covid-19 out" but Catherine fears a broken heart carries an equal risk.

She said: "I am not ignorant to the seriousness of Covid-19 or the infection control processes that need to be taken to protect the vulnerable, but locking away our loved ones and denying them of all visiting rights unless they are at end of life cannot be the answer. It is tragic and it it cruel.

"We cannot stand by knowing that irrevocable mental and physical health, emotional and psychological damage is being inflicted on our precious loved ones.

"We cannot allow our vulnerable, frail and elderly to live out their end days bereft of family and the comforting touch of a loved one, believing they are unwanted and forgotten.

"I am no lawyer, but I strongly believe closing the doors on care homes will constitute a direct infringement of a person’s basic human rights and must be challenged.

"Dementia deaths have risen by more than 50 per cent in the past six months. People can die of a broken heart which I now understand is a very real condition.

"Our loved ones are often not able to speak for themselves; we must step up and speak for them."

She said she has nothing but praise for Oriel care home and its staff - as the visiting ban was imposed on homes by Dudley health chiefs following Government advice.

Councillor Nicolas Barlow, Dudley Council's cabinet member for health and adult social care, said the decision was made a few weeks ago "with heavy hearts" to suspend visiting for all but essential visitors and he said: "The virus hasn’t gone away and we have a duty of care to protect our most vulnerable residents during this difficult time.

"We know the value of seeing family and friends and this is why we’re encouraging homes to facilitate virtual get togethers or meetings through windows as we continue to tackle the virus and all work together to prevent the spread of infection. Care homes can still allow visits in exceptional circumstances, subject to a robust risk assessment.

“We are taking an approach that is consistent with other local authorities and can assure local residents that this decision will be reviewed regularly and visiting allowed once it is safe to do so.”

Catherine, however, is urging Dudley Council to rethink its blanket ban on visiting and she said: "The Government needs to issue a clear directive to allow next of kin to be given essential care status, allowing access/contact; and to instruct every care home to provide a designated safe place which is sanitised where visits can continue to take place, if not indoors then in an equivalent all-weather structure. This should be made an essential requirement."

She is now joining various campaigns and national charities, including the Alzheimer's Society, to try to overturn "this immensely cruel decision to lock the doors" and she wants to hear from anyone affected by her mum's story or facing similar challenges.

Catherine can be contacted by email