Melbourne-resident Joy* and her siblings used to visit their mother up to three or four times a week, and are now lucky if they are able to see her once a month.
Their mother, Mary*, is an Italian-born woman who lives with dementia and Parkinson’s Disease and is subject to strict lockdown conditions in her Mornington residential facility.
Her children are concerned that her wellbeing has been affected by the reduced visits.
“A lot of people with dementia, they're not able to understand why their families not visiting them, and that obviously distresses them,” Joy told Aged Care Insite.
“Families do a lot of things in terms of additional care that they don't get: it could be helping with feeding, just scheduling them, and interacting with them.
“Some people are just not having any contact with family for weeks and weeks and weeks, and that's been really challenging.”
Aged care residents across Sydney and Melbourne have faced some of the nation’s harshest isolation rules, due to their increased vulnerability to the COVID-19 virus.
For months, residents have been confined to their rooms, unable to mingle and enjoy face-to-face time with loved ones without a granted exemption.
Joy says that the process of organising visits with her mother’s nursing home has been stressful.
“It’s on you to constantly have to follow up and feel like you have to justify wanting to check the welfare of a loved one,” she says.
“I think it is kind of a consistency sort of thing, sometimes they're not so great, you ring up, you have to fill out an email.
“I'm being told now that the process that I was told [about], that there’s a new process, and you still have to constantly chase them.”
Many residential care facilities across Australia have arranged regular window visits and video calls to keep people in touch.
For those with dementia, who make up over half of aged care residents, interactions over the phone can be confusing and overwhelming.
Joy says that she has kept regular contact with her mother over Facetime, but has struggled to keep her engaged.
“Mum doesn't really respond to it,” she says.
“It's great that you can see her and you talk to the carers and get an update, but that's not an interaction for her, because she doesn't actually recognise that as seeing her.”
While the nurses and carers at the Mornington facility did an “excellent” job caring for her mother, Joy’s issue with management came to head a few weeks into isolation.
She began calling and emailing weekly, and would not have her calls returned until she complained days later.
After speaking with other family members with loved ones in the facility, Joy says that she heard similar experiences.
“I get they're busy and everyone's a bit stressed, but if you can’t manage and acknowledge emails when they're coming in, then you need to find a new system and a new way to do that,” she says.
“Half the time it's the lack of communication that causes the anxiety.”
Hundreds of thousands of families have been affected by the lockdowns in aged care facilities around Australia.
Joy says over the past few months she has slept poorly and is worried about losing time to spend with her mother.
“It's already stressful that you've got to put them in aged care, and you don't really know how long you've got with them,” she says.
“You are constantly worried just about their health in general, then on top of it, with the pandemic.
“When you know that when you do go in, they're going to be really upset with you because they don't know why you haven't visited, and so then you have to kind of try and work through that with them.”
To improve the experience for everyone, Joy believes that aged care facilities should encourage regular open forums over Zoom so that families can keep in the loop.
She also suggests less “generic” email communication to build trust between loved ones and caregivers.
“They're being quite clinical,” she says.
“It's really simple, basic customer service. It’s just listen, acknowledge, and then actually tell, and then assist.”
“We've had to go from a model where they could communicate face to face constantly with families, and they've had to sort of convert to a different model, and they just haven't adapted properly.”
Colbeck hints recovery plan
The Aged Care Services Minister, Richard Colbeck, has released a three-tier plan to slowly ease visitation restrictions for people living in aged care facilities.
NSW Health has now updated its advice to permit aged care residents to walk one kilometre outside of their facility and receive visits under some conditions.
In order to leave their home, residents must undergo a risk assessment and are prohibited from interacting with other people.
Colbeck told SMH last week that the plan to allow visitors will go ahead “as soon as possible”, given that 80 per cent of the nation’s eligible citizens are fully vaccinated.
A reported 98.8 per cent of aged care staff are now fully jabbed, with the majority of aged care residents immunised.
Over fifty per cent of Australians aged 16 and over have now received both vaccinations.
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