Ruth Kelly, myth-breaker

George Weigel

Late last year, when Italian philosopher and cabinet minister Rocco Buttiglione was denied the post of European Minister of Justice because his convictions on sexual ethics and marriage were unacceptable to a gaggle of libertine Euro-parliamentarians, there was a certain plausibility to the whole exercise – at least from the point of view of secularists, leftists, and the establishment European media. Buttiglione, after all, was a minister in a center-right Italian government; Buttiglione is a devout, intellectually astute Catholic whose thinking is shaped by natural law reasoning and Catholic moral theology; and it’s an article of faith in the left-leaning worlds of European secularism (which include most of the mainstream Euro-media) that Catholic + conservative = in vitro fascist.

Why, then, has Britain’s Ruth Kelly been getting the Buttiglione Treatment in recent weeks?

Who, you ask, is Ruth Kelly? Let me introduce you.

Born in Northern Ireland in 1968, Ruth Kelly is a graduate of Oxford and the London School of Economics, where she earned a master’s degree in the dismal science. After working as an economics correspondent for the (very left-oriented) Guardian, and later at the Bank of England, Kelly was elected to Parliament at age 29 in 1997 as a Labor Party candidate. Having held a series of sub-cabinet posts, Ruth Kelly was appointed to the cabinet last month by Prime Minister Tony Blair as Education Secretary. (At which point, observers remembered that Britain’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was another Oxford graduate who’d begun her ministerial career in the department 36-year-old Ruth Kelly now headed.)

Then came the Buttiglione Treatment.

The fact that Ruth Kelly doesn’t conform to certain feminist conventions – she’s a Catholic, a daily communicant, married once, the mother of four small children, and vigorously pro-life – evidently didn’t agree with one fellow-MP (another woman, no less), who labeled Kelly “that cow.” Kelly’s previous decisions to decline the Health and Overseas Development cabinet portfolios because those jobs would have entangled her with contraception and abortion didn’t sit well with the keepers of the feminist flame, either.

The British science establishment quickly went into its default mode in such matters: the Galileo case was back! A senior geneticist, Dr. Robin Lovell-Badge, told newspapers that it was “very worrying” that someone with Kelly’s religious convictions might, in overseeing government funding of scientific research, impede embryo-destructive stem-cell research, thus producing a “schizophrenic” and “confused” situation like that in the United States. (By which adjectives, Dr. Lovell-Badge apparently evidently means a situation in which the law requires that scientific experimentation take place within boundaries that protect innocent human life.) The Times of London summed up this change in the Ruth Kelly indictment by writing that “some MPs [Members of Parliament] fear her religion may cloud her judgment.”

“Cloud” was the give-away, of course. In an objective news story, that sentence would have concluded, “…inform her judgment.” But in the intellectually insular world of European secularism – which has many parallels on this side of the Atlantic – religious faith in general and Catholicism in particular are, by definition, obscurantist and irrational. How could Catholic moral theology “inform” anyone’s judgment? Catholicism, according to the settled mythology of the Euro-secularist left, clouds judgment. Or distorts judgment. Or replaces “judgment” with robotic obedience.

Inflamed by The Da Vinci Code, British conspiracy theorists are in a lather because Ruth Kelly has participated in activities organized by Opus Dei. What really earned Ruth Kelly the Buttiglione Treatment, though, is the fact that she’s a myth-breaker: day by day, her public life refutes the canard that serious public Catholicism in the 21st century means incipient fascism. For who could plausibly accuse this bright and accomplished  trade union member of being – gasp! – one of those dreaded conservatives? Conservatives and former Guardian writers don’t get elected Labor MP for Bolton West.

Ruth Kelly isn’t just a sign of contradiction for Britain’s secular left, though. What will accommodationist Catholic legislators in America – Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Mikulski, for example – make of a popular, competent, liberal, Oxford-certified Catholic woman and politician who’s convinced that Humanae Vitae and Evangelium Vitae got it right?

COMING UP: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.