Earlier today, my mum called me on FaceTime from my Grandma’s care home. Being able to see them sitting together, and have my Grandma seem genuinely happy to be able to see me, even if it was just on a small phone screen, made my morning.
I’m living in Melbourne, and my family are all in Sydney, where the coronavirus panic has worn off. People are going out to eat, gathering for parties, and some aged care homes are allowing family members and loved ones to come and visit. For my family, they’re visiting Grandma for the first time in three months.
After a few people presented with fevers in July, HammondCare totally locked down their facility. No visitors were permitted on the premises, and while my grandmother, who is living with dementia, is lucky enough to remember there is a virus keeping family apart, she still struggled day to day not being able to spend time with her family.
But thanks to a new initiative, family members are finally able to come back on site and visit with their loved ones in care. HammondCare have offered a series of training sessions to help family members and loved ones be able to reenter the homes and spend time with their family in the facility in a COVID-Safe manner.
The online training series consists of watching informational and demonstration videos on things like mask wearing and hand washing, followed by a series of multiple choice questions. Once passed, participants attend a face-to-face session with trainers so they can show that they know the correct ways to put into practice the things they learned in the online portion.
Once both sections of training are passed, they’re issued with a certificate of completion, and allowed to reenter the homes to see their loved ones for the first time in months.
“You’re expected to turn up to the place with your face mask already on – you have to have already had a flu shot to go to the information session – so you confirm you’ve had a flu shot when you get to the sign in,” said my uncle, Allan, when I spoke to him about finally being able to visit his mother again.
“They print off a little sticker with your name and that allows you entry into the individual house. So I go into mum’s house, and I make myself known, show them the sticker that they’ve given me, and then I visit with your grandmother in her room.
“We’re not to interact with the other house members. So it’s just you and your loved one, and that’s it.”
Of my family, my mother, Roz, her brother, my Uncle Allan and his wife Aunt Louise, have all completed the training so far, and being able to sit with Grandma and talk to her face-to-face has not only boosted their moods, but hers, and the other members of the facility.
“It’s been three months, so actually being able to go in is great. I think spending 40 minutes or however long it was, spending time doing online training, and then turning up for face-to-face [training] for an hour, that’s no big deal when it means that you can come and visit your family,” said my mum, Roz.
“I know that mum’s friend in the house, her daughters hadn’t got onto a session yet, and she knew that they were trying to get onto a session and she couldn’t wait for them to actually visit.
“It’s great to go and see mum and I’m sure she’s happy. ‘Oh my daughter, my daughter, my lovely daughter’ says mum when I come, so she’s relieved and pleased, and I’m glad that Allan has been able to go too,” she said.
So far, Grandma’s time at HammondCare has been short, and full of outside complications. She’s only been a resident since November, so between selling her house, other family members losing their home in the bushfires in summer, and now coronavirus, she’s seen a lot of change and upheaval all while trying to settle into new and sometimes unfamiliar surroundings.
“Prior to COVID, we were working towards those family type environments and feeling comfortable, then bam, all of these restrictions and confusions, so that has been difficult,” said Roz.
“And then to have this total lockdown as well, it puts another layer on it. She hasn’t been there a year yet, and with the changes and the way in which we’ve all had to adapt, she’s done really well. When you really think about what’s gone on, no wonder she has the days when she’s confused and wants to go home, she’s living with dementia, and there’s been so many things that have happened in just over a year.”
“Unfortunately, she has good days and bad days. And that hasn’t changed, she still has her good days and bad days,” said Allan.
“I went the other day, and she was confused about when her good friend had passed away, and then she asked me about your grandfather, and ‘what did we do for his birthday?’. So she’d forgotten that he’d passed away. You know, that was a bad day.
“But other days you turn up and she’s quite sprightly. I suppose if she didn’t have someone coming and visiting her, there wouldn’t be that opportunity for her to reminisce and be quite sprightly,” he said.
My uncle, who is considered high risk for COVID-19 infection, had been mostly quarantining in his home since March. Only leaving the house for absolutely necessary outings, it had been a long time since being able to see his mother. But since a lot of the highest risk stages have passed in NSW, and now with the tools learned in the training, he’s been able to go to her facility and see her again.
“[Visiting her,] it’s great, it’s really good. I haven’t seen your grandmother since March, so it was six months. So that’s a really long time since I’d seen her face-to-face,” he said.
“There’d been telephone calls, and your mother had organised a number of video chats, so we’d had a couple of those, and they were quite good, seeing her. But it’s not the same as actually being in the same room and seeing her face-to-face and talking to her. So that’s been quite lovely.”
Part of the COVID-Safe training has included maintaining social distancing with family members, and avoiding too much close contact. Hugging and showing affection has been one of the things that they’ve had to navigate.
“[They told us] ‘we’re not going to tell you not to hug your loved one. If they instigate the hug, let them hug you. Don’t shy away from their hug. But don’t you instigate the hug, try to keep the social distancing’,” said Roz.
“A couple of times, mum and I have done air kisses, so I’ve got my face mask on, and I’m three inches away from her face going muah muah muah, which she gets a laugh out of. But we haven’t been doing any big bear hugs,” said Allan.
But despite the restrictions on their time together, they’re still able to find ways to enjoy their day.
“A couple of visits ago, it was a lovely day, and your grandmother and I went for a little bit of a stroll around the garden outside and she seemed to perk up a bit,” said Allan.
“Otherwise she would have just been sitting in the lounge, having a chat or not doing anything, or falling asleep in the lounge. But you arrive and you say hello and there’s movement and interaction, so that has to be a good thing.”
There has been a shift in the dynamic between my mother and my grandmother. As Grandma’s dementia has progressed, my mother Roz has stepped into the care role for her. For the last 14 plus months, I’ve watched my mum try to be everything and more than my grandmother has needed her to be, so during the lockdown period, some of the hardest things for Mum was not being able to offer her mother the care and attention she needed.
“I’m relieved that I can go in, and I can see her, and I go in and hang up clothes. And she says “you haven’t come here to hang up my clothes and do these things, come and sit down” and I say ‘it’s okay mum, I don’t mind. I like to look after your things’,” she said.
“Today I went in and we chatted and I hung up clothes and fixed her bed and put things away and found things that were put in her handbag that she didn’t need in her handbag. Just general personal care that she doesn’t get from the carers because they don’t have the time. They don’t have the time to actually do the finer details of things.”
Having a strong support system for people living with dementia is so important in maintaining their wellbeing. This has now been realised by people more than ever in the wake of COVID-19. And while the carers in facilities work their hardest to help residents, and do their best to care for and keep their spirits up, the support and assistance of a family or outside support system is so important to those living in care facilities.
Sometimes, especially at night when she no longer has her old nightly routine to go through, Grandma would find herself becoming distressed. After living on her own for almost 20 years after her husband, my Grandpa, died, her nightly routine of locking up and turning off all the lights before bed had been cemented. Moving into a care home and losing that sometimes caused some problems. And now that her steadily developing new routine had been thrown into confusion again with new restrictions, there were extra concerns and confusions being battled.
“The carers were good in that if mum was getting a bit distressed, they gave us a call, and she always calms down a little bit once she heard our voices, and I’d explain to her why [we couldn’t visit her]. But now I can say to her, ‘well I’ll come and see you in the morning, mum’. Or ‘I’ll come and see you tomorrow’, and she’ll say ‘oh okay, that’s good’. So knowing that I can go and visit her, that makes her feel better, and it makes me feel better too,” said Roz.
Being so far away, away from my family and my ageing grandmother, I sometimes feel useless and unable to offer real tangible support. And knowing that Grandma wasn’t able to receive visits from my family when she hadn’t fully settled into her home was a hard pill to swallow. Seeing Mum and Grandma together for the first time in months today, a sense of relief washed over me.
The three of us could have a quick chat, and Grandma and I could actually see each other and the three of us could laugh together. It warmed my heart to know that, even if she won’t always remember it, at that moment she was happy.
“I think it’s all about the moment, and being with her in the moment, because sometimes she forgets that we’ve been there,” said Roz.
“Being able to sit and see you on FaceTime today, she said “oh it’s so lovely to see you” so she was quite surprised. “Through the stratosphere” I think she said.
“It’s good, we have a chuckle, she still has her good sense of humour. “You be a good girl, now” how many times did she tell you that? She does it with a twinkle in her eye.”