While Sydneysiders meet up with friends for a picnic, aged care residents who have been under strict lockdowns for months are still unable to see loved ones.
Despite being only a short drive away from her mother’s aged care home, Deborah Jackson celebrated her mum Minnie’s 96th birthday via video call this week.
“They’ve really made a bit of a fuss but, obviously, we couldn’t be there to celebrate — and, at 96, we know she doesn’t have too many more birthdays left,” Mrs Jackson said.
“It is really hard to have conversations with her, she loses the thread of a conversation. She is losing weight because she is not eating.
Deborah said Minnie was being well looked after by Anglicare’s Brian King Gardens Residential Care, but had been advised by staff that visiting her mother was not classed as an essential reason to leave her home under the stay-at-home orders.
“I could not have imagined watching somebody deteriorate so quickly over these three months — it is heartbreaking.”
Mrs Jackson has been emailing politicians for changes to be able to see her mum, and said she would do rapid antigen tests, or meet outside to make any sort of face-to-face visit possible.
In a statement, Anglicare told The Drum it had “the ability to screen for double vaccination and we have on-the-spot rapid antigen testing available”.
So the organisation is calling for financial support and the “creation of new public health orders to allow visitation on a risk assessed basis”.
Aged care facilities under lockdown, within lockdown
Currently, the NSW Public Health Order asks providers to consider the Chief Health Officer’s advice.
That was this week updated to allow residents to walk within 1 kilometre of their home — but this still does not include meeting up with family or friends.
The guidance in stay-at-home areas restricts visitors, except those providing essential caring functions and end-of-life visits.
However, lawyer and University of Sydney senior lecturer Sascha Callaghan told The Drum that this advice was for consideration purposes — and was not legally binding.
That means that, when it comes to the severity of restrictions, it is up to each individual provider to interpret the advice, and decide on their own rules.
There is also the possibility that providers may open themselves up to legal action if they were not to follow that advice.
“One of the things that might be relevant for a court to look at when they are determining whether the facility’s been negligent, for example, is whether all the relevant advice at the time was followed.”
Aged care facilities have the discretion about what is deemed a “caring function”.
Dr Callaghan said this leaves some wriggle room for each facility to determine what is going to be most appropriate in their own circumstances.
She notes this could include a close family member visiting to check on a resident’s mental wellbeing.
The chief executive of aged care provider Maroba Caring Communities, Viv Allanson, has been taking residents for mental health walks and outings for weeks, despite the New South Wales advice saying otherwise.
Ms Allanson told The Drum they were having to “improvise”, based on the guidance and call local health units for further clarification on a case-by-case basis.
“We are all trying to put the resident first as well as follow the guidelines that were given and those guidelines can be quite complex,” Ms Allanson said
“What is an essential visit, as what is just a routine visit to mum or dad. Now, whilst we all acknowledge that those visits are absolutely vital, if we relax that stay-at-home order to everyone who would like to visit, we would have the facility full of people.”
Separate code allows visits during lockdowns
This pandemic has shown the vulnerability of aged care residents, with more than 700 people dying with the virus in aged care settings across the country.
Since New South Wales’s June outbreak, 20 residents in aged care settings have died as a result of COVID-19 infections.
Last year, the Aged Care Royal Commission recognised the importance of visitation and the “irreparable damage” facility lockdowns can have.
As a result, providers and aged care bodies agreed to a code, to pave the way for visits to continue at all levels of a pandemic.
It says, at any level of outbreak — including the one that Sydney is experiencing now — providers will continue to facilitate visits in their rooms or outside the home, or should be supplemented with technology, window contacts or via balconies.
However, the Council on the Ageing (COTA) Australia’s chief executive, Ian Yates, said that, despite this agreed code, COTA was seeing more inconsistency with this lockdown.
Residents spend weeks without seeing loved ones
Helen Coote, 87, said the staff at her Illawarra aged care home have treated her marvellously, but that she was “bored stiff” with no visitors allowed into her Hillside home.
The former head controller of the Civil Defence (now SES) has only been able to communicate with her family via a landline telephone since she last saw them on June 15.
“It would be lovely if we could do like we did last year. We were able to see them, by appointment, with perspex between us and them,” Mrs Coote said.
“They were completely geared with PPE. But that hasn’t been offered this year … I’m not sure why not.”
Helen’s daughter, Jennifer Coote, agreed.
“I understand they want to keep her safe, but they could be creative with still keeping contact,” Ms Coote said.
COTA peer ambassador Val Fell said that aged care residents were in vastly different situations, even within the same facility.
Ms Allanson told The Drum aged care providers needed more financial support from the government to address these issues.
“The funding is completely inadequate to provide the service we all want to deliver in a safe environment to absolutely lift the spirits of everyone in aged care.”
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