Families across New South Wales were able to reunite with loved ones in aged care as COVID-19 restrictions eased this week.
- Visitors can now enter aged care homes in NSW again following strict COVID-19 guidelines
- Some family members are worried about the return of visitors, with COVID-19 still spreading in the community
- Sean Rooney from the Australian Aged Care Collaboration says the sector is far better prepared for outbreaks than it was last year
Elderly residents have endured months of separation to try and keep them safe from the COVID-19 outbreak that swept the state, but it has left some battling loneliness and a low mood.
Uniting Annesley care home has 88 residents in Sydney’s inner west and specialises in people living with mental illness.
Fully vaccinated people over the age of 12 were able to visit Uniting Annesley this week under strict COVID-19 checks and as long as they wore masks and shields.
One of the visitors was Joseph Khalifeh, who was there to see his family friend Gratien Raoul.
Their families knew each other in Egypt before migrating to Australia and Joseph has been a regular visitor at the facility until the pandemic made that impossible.
When 82-year-old Gratien saw Joseph walk into the room, he broke into a broad smile and even started singing to celebrate the moment.
“I’m happy, [so] nice to see you,” Mr Raoul told his friend.
That was despite some initial confusion because when he first saw Joseph his face was obscured by a shield and mask.
“I didn’t recognise you,” Mr Raoul said.
“I look like a spaceman,” Mr Khalifeh quipped.
Joseph said even though they had spoken on the phone and made video calls there was no substitute for face-to-face contact.
But another resident, Nancy Cullen, found a visit from her granddaughter Kimberly Luffman overwhelming.
She told Kimberly she had been having a hard time.
“I can’t manage to do things and that’s where I need help,” she said.
It prompted a hug from Kimberly and the promise of future visits.
She also played a video made by her children saying they missed her.
Kimberly wasn’t surprised her grandmother was overwhelmed and hopes her spirits will lift soon.
“This is like the beginning of a building up process for her now, so I’ll need to be visiting much more regularly, trying to take her out of the centre,” she told 7.30.
“And she will bounce back, but it will take a couple of weeks.”
Restrictions inconsistent across providers
The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee put out a statement earlier this month saying visitors were essential to reduce the impact of social isolation on the elderly, and there was agreement all jurisdictions would revise public health orders to promote safe visitation.
However, the Older Persons Advocacy Network has been receiving complaints from people in NSW about onerous restrictions on family visits being imposed by some aged care providers that go beyond public health rules.
“We do need to have consistent practices right across NSW and at the moment, I think that’s the challenge,” said CEO Craig Gear.
Increasing visits to aged care facilities in areas like Sydney, where the virus continues to circulate in the community, will be another big test for a sector that’s been under sustained pressure during the pandemic.
The aged care royal commission labelled COVID-19 the greatest challenge aged care has ever faced and the commission highlighted substantial failures in infection control practices at some facilities.
More than 750 aged care residents and home care recipients have died nationally, since the pandemic began.
Infection control expert Professor Marilyn Cruickshank from the University of Technology Sydney said COVID-19 had exposed a lack of expertise and preparedness in aged care facilities.
She said there was little interest in training run by the Australasian College for Infection Prevention and Control prior to the pandemic but that had now changed.
“There’s been a huge wake up call and … the numbers of staff who are coming out to to be trained, that really demonstrates that we’ve gone from perhaps training 20 or 50 people a year now to over 3,000 just this year,” she told 7.30.
“One thing that we do have at the moment that makes me confident is that we really understand the strategies that are required [for infection prevention and control].
But the aged care industry is adamant significant change has occurred that will reduce the likelihood of large outbreaks.
Mandatory vaccination for aged care workers is in place and 86 per cent are fully vaccinated.
It’s also compulsory for facilities to have an on-site worker trained in infection protection and control.
The aged care regulator, the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, has conducted almost 2,900 spot checks to observe infection control and personal protective equipment (PPE) protocols since August last year.
Issues identified during those checks include outbreak management plans not being updated and breaches related to use of PPE.
Sean Rooney is a spokesperson for the Australian Aged Care Collaboration, an industry group that represents over 1,000 aged care providers.
He maintains the sector is far better prepared.
“We’ve seen staff being constantly upskilled and trained with the use of PPE, and having greater supplies and access to PPE,” he told 7.30.
“We also have outbreak management plans in every aged care home that have been updated and responding to all of those lessons learned.
“All of these protections put us in a much better place to be able to do what is what we believe is the national priority, and that’s keeping residents and staff safe from COVID-19.”
Residents ‘pay the price’ when an outbreak occurs
Anthony Bowe is nervous about the increase in visits to aged care.
It’s been a stressful time for him because his mother Patricia Shea lives at Newmarch House in Sydney’s west.
His mother has had COVID-19, and an outbreak there last year resulted in 19 residents dying.
“Mum got COVID in April 2020,” he said.
“She didn’t suffer any respiratory problems and that was probably the difference between her surviving and not surviving.”
Last month, a doctor who had visited the home later tested positive, triggering an emergency response that forced residents to isolate in their rooms.
“The impact is felt by the residents,” he said.
“Society opening up again, more visitation … it’s a really dangerous time for the elderly.”
The Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission told the ABC that Newmarch House – which is run by Anglicare – had not complied with quality standards during the doctor’s visit.
“The commission found the service was not meeting the requirements … specifically Standard 3 – Personal and clinical care, and issued the service with a Notice,” the commission said.
“This notice placed a number of conditions on the approved provider, including a requirement to appoint an adviser for the service; provide training to staff, including in the area of best practice infection prevention and control.”
Anglicare was unavailable for interview.
In a statement, Anglicare told 7.30:
“Prior to entering the home, the GP was screened in-line with public health directives and presented no signs or symptoms of COVID-19. The doctor was offered a rapid antigen test prior to entry, but declined.”
“Upon being advised of the doctor’s positive COVID-19 status, the home immediately activated its Outbreak Management Plan and implemented enhanced COVID-19 infection control protocols. All residents were isolated to their rooms and both residents and staff underwent immediate COVID-19 testing.”
No residents or staff tested positive to COVID-19 after the doctor’s visit.
In January, the Commission conducted an unannounced audit at Newmarch House which resulted in a notice being issued for non-compliance with the Aged Care Quality Standards.
Anglicare maintains it is keeping residents and their families at Newmarch House regularly informed, which has included increased communication after the doctor’s visit.
“Anglicare has amended and updated its policies and procedures to ensure a best practice approach in responding to the ongoing risk of COVID-19,” they said in a statement.
Despite his reservations, Anthony Bowe enjoyed taking his mum out of Newmarch House this week so they could catch up over a cup of coffee.
“Yeah, it’s great. I think, the more interaction I can have, the better, just to get her out and change the scenery,” he said.
“[It’s] just a total change from being locked down for so long.”
Watch this story tonight on 7.30 on ABC TV and iview.