Care Homes

"Until I find out the truth I won't be able to finish this very strange mourning"

Families denouncing nursing home deaths seek justice to heal wounds and assuage feelings of guilt

Marta Rodríguez Carrera / Gerard Mira
3 min
Temple's Fiella residence in an archive image.

BarcelonaDozens of families are trying to take to court care homes where their parents or grandparents died during the first waves of covid in 2020 as a way to complete their process of mourning . "Until I find out the truth I will not be able to finish this strange mourning," confesses one of those affected by the Residencial Palau nursing home, in the town of Palau-solità i Plegamans, the latest addition to list of homes denounced by the Prosecutor's Office so that a court in Sabadell can investigate whether there was negligence in the 40 deaths during those dramatic months. The witness, who prefers not to identify herself, claims that the search for justice also responds to the fact that she owes it to her dead father: "responsibilities [must] be clarified and the facts [must] be clarified".

For the moment, the case of this old people's home is one of the few that are still alive in the courts; according to Amnesty International's calculations, 90% of cases have been shelved without even witnesses giving statements. Another case is that of the Fiella nursing home in Tremp, where 64 of the 142 residents died between November and December 2020, in an outbreak that forced the Generalitat to take over the home. Now, a court in the town has indicted the home's director and the head of sanitary hygiene for manslaughter, ill-treatment and offences against workplace safety. The complaint details that patients were still registered as having fevers days after they had died, medical coordination with hospitals in the area was lacking and the residents suffered thirst, hunger and cold.

Families at the time were given no information or received WhatsApp messages from doctors saying everything was going well. Ester Bernadó was told by the care home on November 30 that she could visit her father the next day because, despite covid, he was quite well. "I went to see him while he was alive and he was already dead," she says to illustrate "the overflow" and chaos of a home that had neither enough staff nor spaces to separate the sick from the healthy. Bernadó says that his motivation to seek justice is "to know the truth more than to get sanctions" and, in this sense, he points out "shared responsibilities" for "mismanagement before, during and after" the outbreak. "How can it be that, if they were not able to manage, neither the doctors, nor the staff nor the management asked for help. Did they see it as normal?

Evaristo Saura is still "shaken" in body and soul to think that his father died in his room alone and that it was he himself, as director of a funeral home in Pont de Suert, who was in charge of removing his corpse from the room. The memory of loved ones who died in the solitude of nursing homes still weighs heavily and some families voluntarily shy away from media attention so as not to be constantly in the limelight. In part, they admit that this restlessness is only attenuated by the news that the courts will investigate the deaths and they will "know the truth." It is, as Saura says, a "small balm in hell". The woman whose father died also finds some solace in the court's actions, but she points out that not only do nursing home directors have to respond, but so do "politicians or judges who in one way or another have wanted to cover up this holocaust" and silence families.

In her case, she tried "countless" times to contact the care home to get information about her father's condition, but only three times, she says, did they pick up the phone. "I only knew that my father had a cold, but he had been like that for three weeks. He was in good health, in a good condition, and suddenly he was gone," she says, still in pain. Pain and also guilt. "You know he didn't die under your watch, but no one takes away the feeling of guilt," she says.

Self-organized families

It is the same feeling that has haunted Dolors Gonzalo since her mother died in December 2020 in a nursing home in Sant Quirze del Vallès. "I know that I will never get rid of this feeling of guilt," she notes and, although she does not consider filing a complaint because she understands that there was no negligence on the part of the home, she is active within the organisation Els Estels Silenciats, born precisely during those days as an instrument of self-help and denunciation of what they consider to be "institutional mistreatment" of the elderly in care homes. "My mother let herself die, she didn't die of covid, but of grief," she complains, and reproaches that care homes like hers opted to to restrict visits and contact with relatives on the grounds of protecting residents' health, although she believes it was actually due to a lack of personnel.

Elderly care home residents were the "perfect victims" because they could not "defend themselves or escape" and died "without any opportunity", complains the woman whose father died. She agrees with Bernadó that the court's investigation is an opportunity to correct errors through the knowledge of the facts, so that no one has to experience similar undignified circumstances at the end of their life.