Aged care residents are suffering an emotional toll as continued lockdowns mean family and friends are unable to visit, depriving the frail and vulnerable of nurturing human connection and soothing touch.
The Sydney Morning Herald has reported that Judy Christian has been unable to see her 97-year-old mother, Barbara Olliff, since the beginning of lockdown in Sydney 11 weeks ago.
Judy, who is a psychologist, said her mother’s aged care home is only a short walk away from her own home, and well within the 5km band, but the restrictions on visits to aged care mean she still can not go to see her mum.
The permitting of outdoor recreation with another person does not apply to people who live in residential aged care homes.
Though Barbara is being well looked after, Judy has observed a decline in her mood. Activities she usually enjoys, such as watercolour painting and reading, no longer bring her joy.
In a letter to the Herald published last week, Barbara said she felt she had “lost her sense of purpose”.
Judy said her mother’s change in mood was “absolutely tragic”.
As vaccination rates rise, there is the promise that restrictions will gradually be eased.
For example, from September 13, people will be able to gather outdoors in Sydney in groups of five.
However, no changes are being proposed for visitor bans in aged care homes, despite reports residents are suffering, and this demographic has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country.
Staff are also highly vaccinated, with the deadline for mandatory vaccines this Friday.
More than 90% of aged care staff have received a single vaccine dose, and 70% have received two doses. It’s expected the percentage of fully vaccinated aged care workers will rise sharply this week.
Visitors are only permitted to enter aged care homes for “essential caring functions” or an end-of-life visit. Residents may only leave for “essential reasons”, such as a doctor visit.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said aged care residents will be able to accept fully vaccinated visitors when health authorities permit it.
“Our whole aim during this has been to reunite people,” she said.
Aged care providers have been inconsistent in how they have determined “essential caring functions”, and many have only granted exemptions infrequently.
“Family visits provide wellbeing beyond physical care,” she told The Sydney Morning Herald.
Online visits and phone calls are the main mode of connection for residents, but they are not enough.
In May 2021, a team of researchers including leader of The University of Sydney’s Ageing and Health Research Group, Professor Lee-Fay Low, released a paper recommending “we need to urgently reopen nursing homes to visitors safely and effectively”.
Appropriate measures to contain community transmission, nursing home outbreaks and resident, family and staff preferences must be taken into account.
But the social isolation and loneliness caused by lockdowns have been “devastating” for aged care residents, the research says.
Visitor bans have been reimposed “despite increased home and health system COVID-19 readiness and mounting evidence of harms to residents”.
Bans have also often been imposed “without discussion or consent from residents or their advocates, constituting a violation of the resident’s rights to have visitors.”
Barbara and Judy’s story inspired others to write to The Sydney Morning Herald about the impact harsh visitor restrictions are having on older loved ones.
“My mother turned 100 last week and the rules meant we were not permitted to visit her to celebrate this remarkable milestone,” wrote Barbara Anderson from Waverton.
“I am 83 years old and live alone but my only adult child in this country, who could drive from her vaccinated bubble to mine in a little over an hour, is not permitted to visit me. However, across our small town, a couple from a similar jurisdiction in Sydney, vaccination status unknown, have been weekending regularly in their beach house, free to use our local amenities,” wrote Victoria Harrington from Thirroul.
“We cannot continue to have family in care and never be able to see them. Skype and Zoom meetings are possible but because of failing eyesight and loss of hearing, they do not meet the needs of many. It is the physical touch they miss.”