How senior care residents and staff are coping with another wave of COVID-19

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For Michael North, living in a seniors’ residence comes with a feeling of isolation from the rest of the community.

“You almost feel like you’re in a goldfish bowl, watching the world.”

Mr North lives in an aged care home in the West Gippsland area of ​​Victoria.

Michael and his wife Terry have been married for 62 years.(Provided)

His wife of 62 years, Terry, lives in another section of the house with higher care provision.

“I’m free to go see her as often as I want and we spend a good part of the day together,” he said.

“But if I’m isolated in my room, or [my wife] is in hers, I can’t go see her.”

As COVID-19 spreads in the community, it is also spreading in seniors’ residences.

There are outbreaks in 857 aged care facilities across Australia and more than 5,000 residents with COVID-19.

Mr. North’s home does not currently have a COVID-19 outbreak, but it has been in lockdown before.

“They’ve been beneficial because we’ve had a very low incidence of COVID activity at the facility, but they’re intruding on residents’ lives a bit,” he said.

“There’s a growing wall of isolation around people, mainly because of COVID, I think.”

Mr North said visiting restrictions during the closures had affected residents’ ability to connect with other people, but restrictions in the community, such as density limits and time restrictions in churches, had also had an impact.

Elderly man wearing a blue and white checkered shirt and glasses, standing outside a building.
Michael North says the isolation from the community has had an impact on residents’ mental health.(ABC News: Andrew Altree-Williams)

“[It’s meant] cognitive inactivity. The ability to relate to people is reduced. And I think that sometimes has an effect on mental health.”

Although Michael North can drive and spends time reading and emailing friends, he said most residents don’t have cellphones or computers, which further limits social interactions. .

Mr North now lives the nursing home life, but around 20 years ago he was the manager of a nursing home in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne.

He has no complaints about the staff at his home, who he says have gone out of their way to maintain a high standard of care, in the face of staff shortages and extra work created by COVID-19.

“I didn’t know… when I was in management, and I’m quite surprised that as a resident, how difficult it is sometimes to get involved in communication,” he said.

“I have come to the conclusion that circumstances have changed for residents, due to COVID and perhaps the inability of staff to communicate with many people for a long time – this type of inter-communication and knowing has exchange.”

As stories about COVID-19 in elderly care multiply, Mr North said he was concerned about the portrayal of older Australians in the media and in government decision-making.

An elderly woman holds the arm of a younger person while sitting together.
Michael North says older Australians need better representation when it comes to making government decisions.(Unsplash: Manny Becerra)

“People who make decisions don’t appreciate what it’s like to be 80 or 90,” he said.

New Aged Care Minister Anika Wells said in a press release that she had visited aged care homes and residents and would have more to say about formal engagement with older Australians in the coming days.

“It can be heartbreaking”

Alicia Shepherd is the services manager at Uniting The Marion Leichhardt in Sydney, a care home for the elderly who have just come out of isolation, which she says happens “once every two weeks”.

Ms Shepherd said residents had struggled with the loss of social connection during the COVID-19 outbreaks.

Woman wearing gray shirt with long brown hair, smiling.
Alicia Shepherd says closures are happening at her establishment “every two weeks”.(ABC News)

“They’ll tell me, you know, ‘We’ve been in wars, I’ve had car accidents, I’ve lived my life, I’ve traveled the world on my own. Why are you telling me because there’s this virus out there, I’m not allowed to go anywhere?’

“So it can be quite heartbreaking to say to myself to a very old person, ‘No, go back to your room.'”

She also said the staff were exhausted.

“There is no one to replace – the agencies have no one to offer,” she said.

“And although we have the Commonwealth to consult and request staff, staff are not always available.

“So the staff are extremely stretched with overtime and my staff here are absolutely amazing, they treat the residents here as their family… [but] they struggle, they are tired. I’m tired.”

Elderly worker wearing PPE sitting at a table with an elderly resident.
Alicia Shepherd says the lack of social connection during the pandemic has been difficult for residents.(ABC News)

Ms Shepherd said aged care staff were not being adequately compensated for their work, especially compared to their counterparts in the hospital system.

“And now, as we move forward, because you know, ‘COVID normal’, well, that’s not normal,” she said.

“It’s not normal in elder care or to keep going through this every other week.”

Aged Care Minister Anika Wells said she was monitoring the government’s workforce surge capacity, and it was higher now than in January, with 1,900 shifts filled the last week.

Ms Wells said the government was committed to backing Fair Work’s decision on a pay rise for older workers.

Catherine Sherlock, who is residential services manager at Blue Care’s Carina Aged Care Facility in Brisbane, said aged care was a “tough gig” for staff at the moment.

Woman wearing green printed shirt with name badge.
Catherine Sherlock says fatigue is a big problem for older workers.(ABC News: Michael Lloyd)

“I think we’re constantly on edge,” she said.

His home has just come out of a four-week lockdown and staff are wearing full protective gear.

“The air conditioning has been set to heating to keep everyone warm, but PPE makes you sweat and staff change clothes three to four times a shift,” she said.

“When you sweat that much, you get tired. So fatigue is a big problem.

“Add to this fatigue that they have worked two years without vacation.

“We’ve had people, our complementary therapists, jumping behind the counter and into the pantry and doing the evening meal – so I think people step in when they see a need.

“They’re a pretty, pretty awesome crew, mate.”

Residents have struggled with the lockdown

Pamela Bartulovic’s nursing home for the elderly in Snug, Tasmania is currently experiencing an outbreak of COVID-19, but she is relieved the home is allowing residents who do not have the virus to leave the house, with certain requirements of testing.

“For me, when I’m in confinement [earlier this year]it was terrible,” Ms Bartulovic said.

“I didn’t have my family to come see me at the nursing home and we were locked up for quite a while.”

Elderly woman wearing a red jacket, standing outdoors in a garden.
Pamela Bartulovic is grateful to be able to spend time outdoors, despite the outbreak of COVID-19 at her retirement home for the elderly.(ABC News: Owain Stia-James)

She said the outbreak meant the dining room was closed and activities and travel on the house bus had been halted until they got COVID-19 under control.

“There would be a lot of residents looking forward to hobbies and lifestyle and activities that would affect them,” she said.

“And the [nurses] do the work of the kitchen staff, bringing all the meals. They are tired.

“But when it comes to care, you can’t blame them.”

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