Auckland aged-care residents struggling with isolation in lockdown

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Aged-care facilities say their Auckland residents are isolated and lonely as they head into their ninth week in lockdown.

nurse rest home car elderly hospital

By Ella Stewart for rnz.co.nz

It has prompted some in the industry to call for booster shots for residents so they can see their loved ones again.

The recent change in restrictions has allowed Aucklanders to meet with up to 10 people outdoors from one other bubble.

But there has been no such reprieve from lockdown tedium for older New Zealanders in aged care facilities.

Oceania Healthcare clinical and care services general manager Dr Frances Hughes said residents were struggling and needed to see some light at the end of the lockdown tunnel.

"People need hope and safety of our people is wider now than just the physical safety. It is about the spiritual and psychological wellbeing of people and we pride ourselves at Oceania on being person-centred and compassionate, not institutional.

"Even though we've had technology and we've had staff who have kept interactions and connections going with their loved ones, technology and staff cannot and should not replace the loved connections of your family and your close friends. We want to plan, we want to give people hope, and we want to make sure we're building resilience."

Up until this week, the only visitors allowed into rest homes have been those with loved ones undergoing end of life care.

The criteria have now been tweaked to allow family visits on compassionate grounds, if a resident is confused, distressed, or their mental health and wellbeing have deteriorated.

Dr Hughes said that was a good start.

"I don't want to see anxious people. I don't want to see heartbroken people. We are working with our people. Even the compassionate opening of the slight door that happened this week, with the definition being expanded. The smile on people's faces. It's heartbreaking to see people just think that they can only talk through Zoom that they can look through a window at each other."

She believed they could manage the risks posed by Covid-19 while also allowing family visits.

"We have very high vaccination rates of our residents and staff. We have good privately funded surveillance systems. We have very good IPC and we have got risk assessments. What we know is that with all the protections, we have to be able to balance the risk versus the impact on our people.

"We know that we can manage this, and we just need some ability to get a clear strategy and plan so that we can transition out."

For David Parkinson and his whānau, the lockdown has been particularly tough.

They have been unable to visit their elderly mother, who he and his brothers would usually go and see three times a week.

She has advanced Alzheimers, and things recently deteriorated to the point where she's now having palliative care.

"Her condition is such that she's not really communicative, so the Zoom calls and that sort of thing doesn't really work. When we go and visit her, it's holding hands. It's a more physical experience than a verbal one, so the Zoom stuff didn't really work for us, and essentially the main contact was with the nurses."

They were finally able to visit her last week after her condition worsened. Despite how hard it has been, he supports the cautious approach her aged care provider has taken.

"It's probably harder on us than it is on her. The care staff and the people that work up there, especially in the dementia hospital wards, they're just amazing, and so I know that she's being looked after and cared for.

"From her perspective, she's getting all the things that she needs, but from our perspective, we're probably missing out on giving the love that we wanted to give her."

Ryman Healthcare has 38 villages across New Zealand, with 11 of them in Auckland.

Chief operations officer Cheyne Chalmers said although it had been tough on residents, it was still too risky to allow in-person visits.

"The really good thing is that they're not in isolation in the aged-care centres, they are participating in their group activities in a big bubble. They are able to eat with their co-residents. They're able to participate in activities, and we've worked really hard to make sure that they have Zoom calls and they have regular catch-ups with their loved ones.

"I'm still adamant that aged-care, they are the most vulnerable people in society, and we have to be protecting them. We're not ready yet. We're definitely not supporting that. "

She would like to see the government introduce Covid-19 vaccine booster shots for aged-care residents, and also to provide rapid-antigen tests to the sector.

"The resolution to this is going to be getting vaccination rates up. It's going to be introducing tools such as rapid antigen testing. We've been doing that in Australia for visiting, so we have our villages in Victoria and we've been using rapid antigen testing to help allow visitors in.

"When you think about the fact that most of our residents were vaccinated early on, so they were in that first group to get vaccinated or second group ... it will be important to consider a booster shot."