Coronavirus and aged care: What’s being done to help the country’s vulnerable?

May 07, 2020
An aged care expert has explained what is being done to support residents during the coronavirus. Source: Getty

The outbreak of the coronavirus has meant placing a lot of our needs and daily activities on hold for now. However, if you currently need to place a parent in aged care or are dealing with the health needs of an ageing loved one, there’s no pandemic that can place that on hold.

Mum may have had a fall and the doctor has told you she can’t stay in the hospital or return home. Or perhaps your husband is experiencing advanced stages of dementia and has wandered into the streets more than once and you know he can no longer live independently.

These situations are almost always emotional, overwhelming and stressful for the families involved. However, the pandemic is adding an entire new layer to this. While Covid-19 has resulted in more complications, it’s important to understand that families and residents can still access the care they need and support their loved ones while keeping everyone safe.

How are aged care homes responding to the pandemic?

How aged care homes are responding to Covid-19 varies considerably between each home. At the moment, whenever I speak to a facility I have to ask them ‘what is your Covid-19 policy today?’ because it can honestly change day to day, week to week. Overall, the homes are doing a great job considering the complexity of this nightmare and we have to acknowledge that aged care nurses have one of the toughest jobs in trying to protect our most vulnerable people.

I’ve also seen some incredible creativity coming out of aged care homes in response to this crisis. One aged care facility has set up an outdoor area with a fence down the middle so family and friends can visit by having a chat over the fence, but still practice social distancing. This is so important for maintaining the mental wellbeing of the residents and their loved ones.

While I completely commend the homes that are thinking outside of the box during this pandemic, there are a couple of aged care homes that have taken potentially unnecessarily ceased visitation completely or tried to place new residents in isolation for 14 days. To be clear – there’s no current government policy that has banned all visitors from aged care homes.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison only recently spoke about this and said visitation from family is important for aged care residents’ health. We must also remember the majority of homes don’t have any Covid-19 cases, so there isn’t a need for a lockdown.

If there’s a flu outbreak in a home, then you need to lock the doors, but otherwise it’s about prevention and not lockdown before there’s a need for it. Keeping ageing people away from their social connections unnecessarily can have devastating impacts on their health.

If you’re facing this situation with an aged care home that’s enforcing a lockdown unnecessarily – it’s worth gently pushing back to find a solution that keeps everyone safe and your loved one happy.

How can families respond to this crisis?

When a person moves into an aged care home it’s a transition not just for them but for their immediate family. Not being able to help a resident with this transition can create huge distress for everyone. Often I see residents who don’t have that help feeling as though they’ve been abandoned by their family.

One aged care home I worked with recently found a solution for this problem by allowing two family members to help their loved one settle into their new home. The family members had to have their temperature checked before entering, sign a declaration they were not experiencing any flu-like symptoms and not touch any part of the facility unnecessarily such as doors, handles and walls.

A two-hour time limit was placed to help settle the resident into their room and this greatly supported the transition. There are ways we can work through this unusual time.

Over the last few weeks I have also unfortunately seen a few families pull their loved one out of an aged care home because they’re afraid — that’s not always the best thing for them. In fact, it may even be placing them [residents] at greater risk of contracting Covid-19. Unsurprisingly, some of these decisions are more emotional than logical.

How can hospitals better support the vulnerable?

We often don’t realise that a lot of aged care home decisions are made after Mum or Dad end up in hospital. Perhaps it’s a fall, perhaps they’re getting more confused and leave the stove on all night, but whatever it is it’s common for doctors to let family know if the person can’t return home for their safety.

This is never an easy thing for a family member to hear and is overwhelming under ‘typical’ circumstances, however, the behaviour I have seen from some hospitals in response to this pandemic is not sufficiently giving our elderly citizens the choices they’re entitled to.

My client Belinda* called me from Sydney recently in tears because her dad, who is currently living in Tasmania, was literally left on the street with nowhere to go after his stay in a local hospital. Belinda’s dad is younger than most people who need aged care, being in his early sixties, however his mental health issues means he needs full-time care.

In the end, Belinda’s dad had to live with his parents who are both in their late nineties – which is far from ideal. An extra problem is that Belinda can’t get to her dad or bring him to her, as there are now no flights between Tasmania and Sydney.

While it’s understandable that hospitals are under enormous pressure at this time, they have to ensure they are giving people choices and not just pushing them out into care that isn’t suitable for them.

Research is essential when choosing a provider

We can all appreciate that in these unusual circumstances our health professionals are doing the best they can. However, we have to get the balance right between keeping everyone safe and ensuring ageing Australians receive the care they need and are given as much choice as possible.

If you’re in this situation, get help and don’t take the first suggestion as face value. Not every aged care home will have the same policy. Speak with the aged care providers, the hospitals – find out if you can offer solutions that satisfy what your loved one wants and will also help keep everyone safe.

*Names and some identifying information changed to protect privacy

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