Catholic Medical Quarterly Volune 70(4) November 2020
Lockdown in a complex community - Boarbank Hall, Cumbria
Sr Margaret Atkins
Boarbank Hall is an Augustinian Monastery, with a nursing home which also has a guest house function alongside conferences organised for religious and catechetical development. It is not your average lockdown setting.
Here at Boarbank, we have experienced Lockdown in a unique combination of ways, as one extended community, consisting of Sisters, staff, residents in our nursing home, resident priests, and in normal times, large numbers of visitors and residential guests. We have had enormous assets to help us through: a large and beautiful garden and grounds, a lovely chapel, an empty guest house in which staff and volunteers could stay, and above all a team of staff who were already resourceful, committed and close. We were blessed by generous benefactions, not least of PPE when it was almost impossible to get hold of. The families of our residents have been enormously supportive even though it has been so hard for them not to be able to visit. And we have felt ourselves surrounded by the prayers of so many friends.
Protecting ourselves from the virus was especially challenging. We were running a nursing home in an area very badly affected by the virus, with interconnected groups of staff (most of whom had no choice but to use local shops, and might have other key workers in their families), of resident patients, and of Sisters, some working in the nursing home, some physically vulnerable. The staff made enormous personal sacrifices to ensure that we have all stayed safe so far (and we pray that this continues), and have responded to the challenge of caring for residents with outstanding dedication, professionalism and compassion.
Lockdown has moved through various stages: emergency mode, racing against the clock and overcoming huge obstacles to get urgent training, equipment and emergency staff; building up our teamwork and our morale, and supporting our residents in strange times; then time began to drag, and it was a challenge to sustain the positive mood; finally, we are now negotiating the tricky business of coming safely out of lockdown, when much of the rest of the world feels much freer than we do to return to something like normal life.
We made the most of celebrations: the weekly Clap, combined once with a prayer service; International Nurses’ Day, residents’ birthdays. We prayed together when a member of staff was unable to attend his sister’s funeral. We learned dance routines, played rounders, ate fish & chips - with imagination, you can do a lot safely. “We found that we are such a good team together that it feels more like a family than a place of work ... Throughout, all the staff have stayed positive, cheerful, creative and always go the extra mile for everyone. An exceptional team and I feel safe in the knowledge that we can get through this together.”
The staff were especially grateful for good leadership, saying of our Manager, “She has worked so selflessly and conscientiously in ensuring we all stay as safe and protected as possible. She has worked tirelessly and gone to lengths that not all care homes have been lucky enough to have experienced” and “She acted very quickly - did a very good job and saved lives. She was on the ball and got it sorted out.” Staff were very aware that sadly that several people had died at other care homes in the area.
Lockdown also affected staff on a personal level. One person lost her mother two weeks into the period (“We couldn’t hug - it was very strange” .... “it took a week to get the death registered”) and had to return to find her colleagues already used to wearing PPE. Other staff found that powerful memories of their own bereavements returned. Some staff came to live in because of their family situation (“literally with one day’s notice”). For one this had a special result: “Something particularly important for me has been found again... my faith .... Having time to pray and find comfort in the light of our Lord again has given me the strength I was missing.”
Despite everything, one member of staff was able to describe this period as “an amazing experience”. Or as another one put it, “We’re more of a family now.”
The affection and admiration of the staff for the residents has shone through: “The patients have been very grateful for little things - it makes you feel humble.” “An amazing generation of people, who have given us so much in the past, who had to cope with a very different world. I have the utmost respect and admiration for the residents who are no strangers to adversity, they are strong, proud and independent people, who, even when you know they are hurting and suffering inside, are determined to carry on despite the prevailing circumstances, a generation of people the like of which I am afraid we will sadly never see again.”
We stopped visitors early, and worked hard to ensure that every patient could keep contact with their relatives through phone or IT. The Activities Coordinator quickly adapted her role, as group activities ceased: she had “a lot more quality one-to-one time with people because there are no group activities. More little bits to do, e.g. sorting out people’s mobiles or getting extra plants, library books, magazines. Little things - if I can do them, I will.” She also became even fitter, as the fine weather allowed a lot of wheelchair walks around the grounds, which include quite a few slopes!
The residents were resourceful in keeping busy, with several of them enjoying daily tours of the garden. “The swallows and house martins arrived as usual, and so I didn’t really notice much change at our peaceful Boarbank, where the sun still shone (mostly), the birds still sang, and nobody seemed to find anything much to complain about.” One resident in her 90s made for herself a programme of daily prayers and activities that might make the rest of us feel tired just to read! They kept themselves well informed about life outside, through phone conversations and the news. Their positive attitude has been infectious: “It has been wonderful - I haven’t felt locked down .... I’m fairly new here - but to be able to walk out in the grounds, it was like being on holiday. As I have said to many - if I had to be in a place like this, you couldn’t be in a better one.”
Thankfully, very few patients have been seriously ill during this period, and we were able to arrange family visits in one or two cases of emergency. Now, we are delighted that we have now been able to start regular booked visits in a safe space outdoors. It is a delight to be able to hear the happiness of the reunions: a sign of hope for a return to something like normal life.
The Sisters felt grateful that they are used to living a life that fits well with Lockdown - with a regular routine of prayer, community and company, all their material needs and purposeful work all still readily available. Nor are we unused to staying in most of the time: in fact, it was a bonus that for so long not one of us was away.
We missed daily Mass, of course, but were grateful for being able to watch Mass, and one Sister spoke of how the time had deepened her appreciation of God’s presence of God in his Word.
For other Sisters, as for very many people outside, there was an opportunity to retrain in a different role. One Sister worked both with the care staff and with the gardeners, and was especially struck by experiencing first hand the level of expertise and skill needed for both of these to do their jobs well - jobs which are poorly paid and often not noticed.
The Sisters were keenly aware of the suffering elsewhere, which has shaped our prayers. A brief period of quarantine gave us a tiny insight into the experience of prisoners; we reflected on the effect of the diet of bad news on people’s mental health; we empathised with families who have been prevented from grieving properly. Those Sisters with ICU expertise were especially aware of how difficult it would be for an ordinary nursing home to cope with a serious epidemic, especially in the early days before PPE was available, before medical expertise with COVID-19 had developed.
The Community felt grateful for so much: incredible generosity and support from staff, families and friends, a time to be together and grow as a Community, time even to tidy up areas of the Convent we had forgotten existed! In all of these, we felt, we were in God’s hands. One Sister put it very simply: “’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.”
Sr Margaret is a Canoness of St Augustine in the community at Boarbank Hall in Cumbria. She was a Senior Lecturer in Theology at Trinity and All Saints College, Leeds. She has particular interests in virtue ethics, in the ethics of healthcare and of the environment, and in St Augustine. The Boarbank nursing home which has been spared the virus so far.