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What can we learn from the Channel 4 drama ‘Help’?

Jules Knight, Consultant Admiral Nurse at Dementia UK, takes a look at the new moving Channel 4 drama ‘Help’ starring Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham.

“No one’s coming!”

“No one would come!”

“No one told us it would be like this!”

These words ring throughout Channel 4’s latest drama ‘Help’, about the challenges of an unsupported social care sector brought to its knees during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sarah, a care worker arrestingly played by Jodie Comer, begins a new job at the family-run Bright Sky care home as a residential care worker.

From the very beginning of the programme, Sarah is informed that she has a week’s induction whilst on the job, and she is handed a yellow t-shirt with the care home logo sown into the breast. There is an uncomfortable feeling that the needs of our most vulnerable people in society are given little regard and there is not enough training for staff supporting them.

She soon befriends resident Tony, played sensitively by Stephen Graham who has been diagnosed with young onset Alzheimer’s – he is only 47.

The relationship between the two strikes a poignant note throughout as they reminisce about old school experiences and play cards in the quieter moments. Despite Covid-19 running as a consistent thread in ‘Help’, this is fundamentally about the lives of people who were left behind during this period and beyond. From Sarah’s embattled role as the sole support worker during a particularly intense night shift at the home, to Stephen’s confusion as he is moved from care home to care home, it is interesting to note that these two characters have bonded so strongly.

As a care worker and person living with dementia, both characters show the lack of support from the wider health and social care systems that would allow them to live, and in Sarah’s case work, with comfort and dignity. The fact that they share the humanity and compassion to get them through the toughest moments shows us what is possible if these same attributes could be shared in wider society.

But it’s the residents of the care home as well who are captured so beautifully; the former English schoolteacher who recounts a poem effortlessly in front of an audience; Stephen’s friend who offers Sarah a drink from the moment she steps into the care home for her first interview; the laughter that emanates from a resident as his son comes to visit (albeit through a window). These are people with lives, experiences and skills who deserve care and dignity.

All of this evokes frustration, sadness and incredulity as we watch the first scenes of hospital patients who have been untested for Covid-19 being transferred into the care home. The care home’s staff and residents soon after bear the consequences of the lack of PPE and testing provided to the social care sector during the pandemic.

It is through hindsight that this film becomes so powerful. The fear, isolation and death that some of the most vulnerable in our society experienced during the peak of the pandemic is even more acutely felt in this programme.

We now know that the virus disproportionately affected people with dementia, with one in four Covid-19 deaths involving a person with dementia. Stephen’s own fate is left unknown, but we know that any resolution here cannot solely rest on Sarah’s shoulders.

Despite the recent announcement of how to fund social care, we are still left with significant issues around how we can care and support the most vulnerable. The health and social care systems are fractured. Families with dementia are not getting the support they need, and people diagnosed with dementia live with more uncertainty as their condition progresses.

As the credits near, we are left to ponder on Sarah’s stark words: ‘When did all lives stop being worth the same?’