Many Australians have been forced to stay away from elderly family members living in care during COVID-19, but some aged care homes have found ways to keep the virus out while allowing visitors in.
- Arthur Sherman’s aged care provider has allowed visits from his daughter Kerrie Foord throughout the pandemic
- Visitors must go through a COVID-19 training program in order to keep visiting during outbreaks of community transmission
- Federal Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck says it is not acceptable for aged care facilities to completely restrict families from visiting residents except during virus outbreaks
Kerrie Foord is one of those lucky few and has kept up visits to her 84-year-old father, Arthur Sherman, throughout the pandemic.
“I’ve got several friends with family members in care who say they weren’t even allowed in the front door,” she told RN Breakfast.
While many aged care providers chose to shut down visits to stop COVID-19 from spreading to highly vulnerable residents, Mr Sherman’s care provider decided against locking down.
It’s also now training its residents’ family members in the hope that they can continue to visit their loved ones, even during spikes in community transmission
All family members who come to visit the care centre in Sydney’s south-west are trained in how COVID-19 spreads, the principles of COVID-19 infection control and what sort of personal protective equipment is required as well as how and when it should be worn.
The training has online and face-to-face components.
Angela Raguz, general manager of residential care for not-for-profit HammondCare, which operates the residence where Mr Sherman lives, said at the start of the pandemic her team decided to go a different direction to other providers who locked down.
“We made a decision very early that we were not going to lock down unless it was absolutely necessary,” she said.
“It was a bit bold and I do remember having a quite a few conversations with people saying, ‘am I right? Is this the right call? Am I making a huge mistake?'”
All physical contact banned at some homes
In March, when COVID-19 infections were spreading in Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison outlined restrictions on visits in aged care.
He said visits must only be short, held in specific areas of the facility and with a maximum of two visitors a day, and that social distancing should be encouraged.
But many care homes went further, in the belief that locking down was the only way to protect residents.
Former head of the Australian Council of Social Services Merle Mitchell is 86 and an aged care resident in Melbourne, who hasn’t been with her family since March because of restrictions.
“There are times when I sort of grit my teeth and think, you know, ‘I would just love to see family and friends’.
The Royal Commission into Aged Care has examined the effect of the pandemic on nursing homes.
It found that visits from family and friends aren’t just a lifestyle matter but are critical to health and happiness.
Innovative solutions needed to enable visits safely
In its report on COVID-19, the royal commission said it wanted providers to try innovative solutions that would allow visits to continue.
Geriatrician Professor Susan Kurrle, who works with the Northern Sydney Local Health District, said there should be opportunities to allow visits as long as rigorous precautions are followed.
“Where there has been a COVID outbreak in residential aged care facilities, it has been taken in [to the facility] by staff members, not by family members visiting and I think that’s what’s so important to remember,” she said.
“Those facilities that have stayed open, perhaps with a concierge at the front door who checks temperatures, that you’ve had your flu vaccination, that you don’t have any symptoms and that you haven’t been your hotspot — they have a much, much better attitude, I think, towards the older person and allowing that ongoing contact.”
The royal commission recommended the Federal Government immediately fund providers to ensure they had enough staff to allow continued visits to people in residential aged care, but that funding did not materialise in the recent October budget.
In a statement to RN Breakfast, Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck said the Government had already committed $245 million to support providers with COVID-related costs, including visitation arrangements.
That is on top of a $205 million COVID supplement in May.
He also said it is not acceptable for aged care facilities to completely restrict carers and families from visiting residents in their care except during virus outbreaks.
But the sector says the funding was announced prior to the royal commission’s report and Ms Mitchell believes more funding is needed.
“The government is not prepared to pay to provide the extra funding that all those sorts of programs need,” she said.
Even with visits, living in aged care during COVID-19 can be challenging
Ms Foord said that being able to visit her father in care had made a huge difference to her family and made her feel like a genuine partner with the provider.
But the pandemic hadn’t been without challenges.
Mr Sherman’s wife of 64 years has been unable to get a flu vaccination that’s required under the visitation precautions because of a health issue.
“I can’t see her,” he said.
“We haven’t been apart [in 64 years] and it’s hard to take at this point in your life.”
As he suffers from post-polio syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease, Mr Sherman normally lies in a waterbed, but Ms Foord was able to have him put in a wheelchair and taken to a coffee shop near the home to reunite her parents for a lunch.
It was the first time they’d seen each other in 25 weeks.
“It was moving, teary,” Ms Foord said.
“It was amazing to see the difference in his face, and hers. I think for both of them, [COVID] has been a huge struggle. So it was quite an emotional lunch.”