A Co Down ceramic artist who watched her mum die from Covid through the window of a nursing home has created a poignant piece of art to highlight the horror of lockdown in care homes.
Anna Smyth (56), a mum of two from Newtownards, has offered a heartbreaking insight into what life has been like for care home residents and their families during the pandemic.
Anna, renowned for pushing the boundaries in her art, has created three pieces called The Three Visits, one of which is currently on display as part of the Royal Ulster Arts 139th exhibition in the Ulster Museum.
The work captures the agony Anna felt first at seeing her mum sit alone all day in a room and then watching her succumb to Covid and not being able to comfort her. In an emotional interview, she also provides a powerful insight into the plight of the elderly during lockdown, especially people with dementia.
Her 70-year-old mother Anna McCarthy was being cared for in a nursing home because she had dementia.
An artistic family, Anna has two boys - Joel (21) who is a silversmith and Nathanael (25), a photographer - and husband William has worked as an engineering teacher, craft design technician and maker of musical instruments.
When lockdown happened in March, Anna watched helplessly as her mum was forced to spend her final weeks sitting all day in a room on her own. She recalled: "The first visit my work represents was on May 1 when mass testing was happening in the home and staff also got their PPE delivered. The home was experiencing its second outbreak of Covid and mum tested positive.
"She had already been sitting on her own all day for weeks but they moved her to a different room. When I went to see her on that first day she was sitting in the dark with the door closed on her own and I could only see the back of her head.
"Mum had no slippers or socks on and while I was there a cleaner came in and mopped the floor."
Because the floor was wet, Anna saw her mum's feet were getting wet.
"I couldn't do anything so I rang the staff and asked if they would put her socks on and they came and turned her round to see me.
"After that, every day I went to the window I could see the virus was taking its toll and mum was changing big time day by day.
"On the second visit which also inspired a piece of my work, mum didn't even know I was standing a metre away from her behind a window. She appeared very distressed and confused.
"I could see her mouth was dry and I couldn't be there to lift the juice and give her a drink. I just wanted to make things better for her and I couldn't do a thing. Part of me wanted the Lord to just take her.
"Even if she survived I thought what life was there for her sitting all day by herself and not being able to process why she was on her own. It was no way for anyone to spend their last days and it is beyond words. I was quite calm because I think I was in shock that this could even happen in this day and age."
Soon after that visit, Anna's mum lost consciousness and became bedridden.
On the third visit, which is also represented in her porcelain collection, she could only look through the window as her mum drifted in and out of consciousness.
Tears flowed as she recalled the helplessness she felt: "She was near death and thankfully not in any way in discomfort and the doctor had assured me she would not suffer. But I didn't get to see her again. I couldn't be beside her or comfort her.
"My mum was there by herself and it was heartbreaking.
"It is surreal and very hard to process. There was no choosing an outfit for her to wear in the coffin, no gathering of anyone, just a closed coffin in the funeral parlour and 15 minutes at the graveside."
Anna's mum died on May 14. To cope with her grief she turned to her work and has crafted her three pieces dedicated to her mum and everyone who has had to visit a relative through a care home window. She calls them Decline, Collapse and Release.
Anna described her mum as a fashion lover with a great vibrancy and wit. Losing her was always going to be difficult but she could never have imagined the circumstances of how her she would spend her final weeks.
She is worried that too many elderly people are still suffering with lockdown loneliness, adding: "Along with Covid they should put isolation and boredom on the death certificates.
"It is a relief to me that Covid took my mum so quickly, rather than see her continue to endure this ongoing separation from others. Those in care homes should be treated as sympathetically as any other terminally ill person; they have not a long life stretching out in front of them.
"Dementia thrives on these negative environments, they must see people and have stimulation. I watched this. I know."
You can view Anna's pieces at the RUA exhibition online at www.belfastinternationalartsfestival.com/event/139th-rua-annual-exhibition/