Concerns raised over aged care visitation restrictions amid Covid-19 crisis

Mar 23, 2020
COTA says some aged care facilities are being too strict with their lock down procedures amid the coronavirus outbreak. Source: Getty

The nation’s peak body for older Australians has expressed its concerns that the government’s tight visitation restrictions at aged care facilities to prevent the spread of Covid-19 could be used as an excuse for unacceptable restraint on the rights of residents and their families.

Following Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement last week, only a limited number of people are allowed to visit elderly loved ones in aged care facilities across the country, and if there’s any chance at all they’re unwell, they’re not allowed to enter the facility.

The restrictions apply to anyone who has been overseas or had contact with a confirmed case of coronavirus in the last 14 days, those with cold or flu symptoms, and those who haven’t been vaccinated. Meanwhile, no group or schoolchildren visits are permitted.

Visitors must be screened against these criteria upon entry. They’re only permitted in their loved one’s room, restricted from entering any common rooms, and there are only two visitors allowed per resident at one time. However, the guidelines aren’t set in stone and how they’re implemented remains up to each aged care provider.

While many have praised Morrison for putting such strict measures in place, COTA says it does bring about some concerns for the older population. Although the organisation welcomed the guidelines, calling them “clear and sensible”, COTA Chief Executive Ian Yates says facilities must ensure they are applied in a manner that ensures safety and is compassionate, respectful and proportionate for each resident and their family.

He says contact with family and loves ones is a crucial part of care for many aged care residents, such as those with dementia, and limiting this interaction could have a detrimental impact on their health and wellbeing.

“An example is the elderly wife who comes each day to sit and talk for hours with her husband with advanced dementia,” Yates says. “If she is prevented from doing this her husband will become anxious, disoriented, and have behavioural problems and the facility will have to spend more staff time with him, or he will end up being drugged.

“Today I talked to a major provider with very strict visiting rules, who would nevertheless enable this wife, while following all hygiene precautions, to continue visiting as usual in the name of both compassionate care and sensible management. But I also listened to family members of another major provider who have been banned from visiting their family without any notice. That’s not in accordance with our Aged Care Standards that deemed providers treat residents with dignity and respect and constructively engage with residents and family.”

He argues that if an aged care facility can manage the health and safety of its staff, who come and go daily and could potentially pose a significant health risk to residents, then there’s no reason it can’t also safely manage family visitors with strict control measures.

“So-called ‘lockdowns’ are the opposite of a sensible and compassionate response and should only be a temporary emergency response to an internal or nearby community outbreak while longer-term measures are worked out,” Yates says. “They should never be a long term response. As a long-term approach, lockdowns are a lazy, alarmist and counter-productive reaction, the opposite of being compassionate and caring.

“Restrictions on aged care visits during this crisis must not be a result of panicked response, or driven by provider convenience, or by concerns about profits. They must emerge from ongoing consultation with, and listening to, residents and families within the framework of the Aged Care Standards, which emphasise on an equal footing consumer dignity and respect, the dignity of risk, best practice infection control, and consumer engagement and quality of life.”

Meanwhile, Leading Age Service Australia (LASA) has also voiced its opinion on the matter, with Chief Executive Officer Sean Rooney saying “it’s critical to saving lives”. He describes the prime minister’s announcement as a “logical and essential escalation” to the protections aged care providers have already put in place and says it’s an “appropriate measure of caution and protection. However, he does say the measures need to be put in place carefully to ensure the health and wellbeing of residents and their families.

“We know the mental health of people in care is equally important to their physical health and wellbeing, so getting that balance right is fundamentally important,” Rooney says. “There are also ways the sector is working to maintain communication between residents and their loved ones, through alternative mechanisms such as video conferencing.”

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