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Aged care facilities limiting family visits during pandemic

Older Australians are missing visits from family and friends as some aged care facilities are seriously limiting visitor access. But, consumer advocate Anne Cahill Lambert asks, if hospitals can manage the risks associated with visits, why can’t aged care facilities? 


Anne Cahill Lambert writes:

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown more than a curved ball to aged care providers. 

I have witnessed some shocking arrangements from aged care facilities in providing care for this vulnerable group of Australians – the elderly.

The pandemic has revealed eye-watering shortages of essential staff to enable the elderly to be treated with respect and dignity in the twilight of their lives, and to ensure that their human rights are not eroded.

In a press conference on 24 April 2020, the Prime Minister instructed aged care facilities to cease the curtailment of visitors to residents of nursing homes.

The national guidelines at that point were that it was acceptable for residents to have two visitors a day in their rooms. The Prime Minister had announced these arrangements on 18 March 2020. Facilities could apply for exemptions. 

That same day, an aged care facility in the ACT issued a note to all residents and families advising that it would not be opening up for visitors at that time. No visitors had been allowed into the nursing home for more than five weeks.

The aged care industry released guidelines on 12 May 2020. Unfortunately, some homes continue to make visiting arrangements a nightmare. 

Limited family contact

For example, the ACT nursing home is now allowing residents to have just one visitor per day for half an hour – after more than seven weeks of no visitors. The visit must be booked. 

For example, my friend who lives in the facility is able to have just one half-hour visit with one person this week because all the available booking times have been taken for other residents. No visits for my friend over the weekend. And just one during the week. For half an hour.

That same aged care facility has not taken its residents outside since mid-March because, according to one staff member, they do not have enough staff to supervise the residents. No sun on their faces, no sun on their backs, no vitamin D. 

I have been advised to encourage my friend’s family to complain to the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, and I have urged them to do this. However, they are concerned about the repercussions for their loved one if they complain.

While I know the Commission takes a dim view of such processes, nevertheless it happens. The family does not want to jeopardise their loved one’s care. 

Managing risk

I have had plenty of people tell me that these restrictions are in place for the good of residents. I wonder at this – the aged care facility has no COVID-19 (indeed, the ACT has been COVID-19-free for more than 20 days), and it has no other outbreaks of infectious conditions, such as gastrointestinal infections. 

It has been shown that with good hygiene practices, there is no reason not to follow the Commonwealth’s directions.

I have watched hospitals manage visitors: temperature checks and hand hygiene at the front doors, limiting the number of visits to each patient and the time of visits. But those arrangements do not exclude access to visits. They merely manage them.

I am despairing of the fact that aged care providers, such as the one cited above, are basically getting away with reverting to the dim black days of history in the way elderly residents are managed – their human rights are significantly diminished. This particular aged care facility is part of a chain and the same arrangements apply to other facilities within the organisation.

Royal Commission

This is happening while the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety is underway. It is happening despite the Commonwealth’s instructions. It is happening despite the existence of an aged care charter of human rights. It is happening despite the code of conduct agreed by aged care providers.

Our vulnerable Australians are being treated abysmally by being locked up in a nursing home with little or no access to fresh air, sunshine and not to mention mental stimulation through visitors. This is akin to solitary confinement.

I am sure mental health experts will have a significant contribution to make in this space; but it will be too late for the current cohort of elderly residents who may just give up over this appalling care.

On a personal level, I am ashamed that our elderly people are being treated this way and shocked that the providers are able to act with impunity.

I am sure we should not be waiting for individual complaints: aged care is clearly a Commonwealth responsibility and actions should be taken immediately to address this abuse of human rights. 

Anne Cahill Lambert, AM, has worked and volunteered in the health system for more than 40 years.  She has a particular focus on ensuring that the voice of consumers is heard. She is on Twitter @ACLambert

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