Oct 14, 2020

“She was locked in her room for 14 weeks”


When Janet’s mother, 89-year-old Sylvia, moved into a nursing home 18 months ago, little could they have imagined the maelstrom that was about to engulf them.

In March, as Sydney grappled with its first cases of the deadly virus that had already killed tens of thousands of aged care residents across Europe, Sylvia’s home in the suburbs of Melbourne decided to put the home into hard lockdown.

“In March, the nursing home locked down hard, right from the start,” Janet told HelloCare when we spoke earlier this week. 

Janet was able to organise one last visit on 17 March. But not knowing how long it would be until she saw her mother again was overwhelming, and she shed tears in the carpark as she prepared herself.

At first, all went well with the lockdown. In May, Janet was able to make an appointment to see her mother for a short, outdoor visit across a table. But it was cold that day, and her mother, who is living with dementia, asked to go back inside, and the visit ended prematurely.

“I could see she was wondering ‘what am I doing out here?’,” Janet said.

First case identified

And then, early one morning in July, Janet received the call she’d been dreading. 

The nursing home rang to inform Janet that a member of staff had tested positive to COVID-19. Shaking, Janet went to work, but was in a state of shock. People were talking to her, but so overwhelming was her anxiety she found it difficult to take in what they were saying.

For the next three months, the home was in total lockdown and Janet lived in a state of constant fear her mother would contract the virus.

“She was locked in her room for 14 weeks,” Janet said.

News of the cases came in like a “drip feed”. The first case became two, and then eight, “and then it was more and more and more,” Janet explained.

Eventually, 46 residents contracted COVID-19 and nearly 50 staff, in total around 100 cases. 

Tragically, fourteen residents died.

Finding the positives  

Despite living in constant fear, Janet found comfort knowing that a 94-year-old client who had contracted COVID-19 had survived. 

She was also reassured by her mother’s good health. She didn’t have heart disease or diabetes. “I thought ‘I don’t think it’s going to kill her’”, Janet told HelloCare. 

The design of the home in two separate, multi-storey buildings was also a positive. The first case was identified in Sylvia’s building, but not on her floor. The early cases were all on the floor above Sylvia’s room, but, inevitably, news came of two cases on her floor. 

Janet rang the nursing home to ask where the cases were in relation to her mother’s room and discovered they were just around the corner.

The sick residents were moved to the floor above, and fortunately the outbreak never spread further on Sylvia’s floor.

Three weeks ago, residents of the second building were allowed out of their rooms, but frustratingly, just as the doors were about to open, a staff member showing no symptoms tested positive. 

“So there was another two weeks in lockdown,” Janet said.

Finally just last week, a ‘clearance squad’ assessed the home and gave the okay to lift the lockdown restrictions.

“No one’s come to visit me”

Though dementia is most often seen as a curse, Janet said it has been “a godsend” for her mother at this time because she doesn’t appear to have understood the danger she was in.

She also seems to have forgotten how long she has been in lockdown. The other day, when she spoke to Janet, Syliva said, “I think we’re in lockdown today.” 

Though she loves football, she seems to have forgotten games aren’t being played in front of crowds, even though she regularly watches the news.

Fortunately Sylvia has been able to maintain contact with family using Facetime. 

From what Janet can tell from afar, “she seems well.” She hasn’t become frail or unwell, and seems to be in good spirits, although she does sometimes observe, “No one’s come to visit me.”

When Janet asks what she’s been doing, Sylvia usually replies, “I’ve been sitting here all day watching TV. Just sitting all day.” 

Physios have been seeing residents in their rooms to keep them mobile and stop them from becoming too frail, and the family has sent puzzle books for entertainment. Sylvia has been eating off plastic plates and forks since March.

Janet is grateful for communication from the nursing home, sending emails to the family every day, and ringing most days too.

A tale of two nursing homes

Despite the awful circumstances, Janet thinks Sylvia’s nursing home has coped with COVID-19 reasonably well. “I don’t blame the nursing home,” she said. “They have communicated well with us… It must have been extremely frustrating for the people running it, because they were very diligent right from the start.”

Janet's father, Glen.
Janet’s father, Glen.

But she has also witnessed an alternative experience, that of her father, Glen, who is 94 and lives in a separate nursing home run by a different provider. He moved there five years ago after suffering a stroke. 

Interestingly, Glen’s nursing home has taken a different approach and has continued to allow restricted visitations for specified loved ones. Visitors have their temperature taken at the door, and they are asked standard questions, such as if you’ve recently been to a hotspot area or if you have any symptoms. Visitors are only allowed in for an hour, and they must wear a mask.

Despite the looser visiting restrictions, the home has not recorded a single case of COVID-19.

“It’s a tale of two different nursing homes. It’s just luck,” Janet observed, noting that Glen’s home is in an area that has not had such high case numbers in the community. Her mother’s home, on the other hand, is in one of the hardest-hit areas in Victoria. Another home in the area has also seen high case numbers.

An uncertain future

Throughout her life, Sylvia was a leader in her community. She was involved in the church, schools, and mothers groups, and led swimming pods and teams of secretaries. 

“It’s sad that in her latter years we haven’t been able to see her, but it is what it is,” said Janet philosophically.

“I don’t know when I’ll next be able to see her,” she said. Residents of the second building are now allowed visitors so long as they wear full PPE, and Sylvia was finally allowed out of her room last week. But the nursing home hasn’t contacted families about visiting residents of Sylvia’s building yet. 

Janet worries that visits in full PPE would be confusing for her mother, and it would be difficult for her to understand what people are saying if they are wearing a mask because she has trouble hearing.

Looking back, Janet says she wishes Sylvia’s home had learnt more from the Newmarch House outbreak in Sydney. “That was a prime example of what was going to happen,” she said. “They literally had been given the warning: ‘this is what you need to do’.”

“Obviously, as the cases started to rise, could PPE have been worn preventatively to not spread it in there,” she wondered.

Even though residents’ movements and visits were so curtailed from March, the wearing of masks was only made compulsory in Victoria in mid-July, when the outbreak had already taken hold at Sylvia’s home.

“It was too late,” Janet said.

* Names have been changed. Images supplied.


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