Visitor limits for Western Australian aged care set to remain for some time, despite easing of COVID-19 restrictions

Brian Ridge visits his wife, Denise Brown, who lives with Alzheimer’s disease, at her Perth nursing home almost every day.

As they sit together, she takes a cup of tea and a scone, and he asks her if she likes him.

She says she does, and he replies, “I love you too”.

The couple have been able to maintain their bond throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions on visitors to aged care facilities and hospitals designed to protect those most vulnerable.

“I usually take him for a drive, we drive down the hill,” Mr Ridge said.

“She loves looking at the water, especially if the sun is shining on it. It’s really good.”

Denise also enjoys dancing when Brian is not with her.(ABC News: Hannah Campbell)

“You can’t have an open slather”

Limits on visitors to senior care homes, hospitals and accommodation for the disabled are among the last remaining COVID-19 restrictions.

More than 30% of COVID-related deaths across the country have occurred in aged care facilities, according to data from the federal Department of Health.

Caregiver with green ball and elderly residents of nursing home sitting on chairs
Elderly residents are limited to two visitors per day to protect the most vulnerable in society.(ABC News: Nicolas Perpitch)

Under current Western Australian health guidelines, authorized by state health director Andrew Robertson, only two people can visit a resident of an aged care home each day, in order to limit any spread of COVID-19.

Mr. Ridge and his wife’s sister are usually the only ones to visit him, and he thought the current settings were correct.

“It’s just too dangerous. And these people are really sensitive.”

An old couple sitting
Brian Ridge supports the restrictions, to protect people like his wife Denise.(ABC News: Nicolas Perpitch)

In hospitals, patients are allowed up to two visitors during visiting hours, as well as any “authorized visitors”, such as parents and caregivers.

Large families upset with access

But not everyone has had the same experience of visiting rules as Mr. Ridge, especially those with larger families.

A woman in the head.
Christine Allen says it is emotionally difficult when families are blocked from seeing those they care about.(ABC News: Nicolas Perpitch)

“It is very distressing for families not to be able to see their loved one as often as they would like,” said Christine Allen, chief executive of the Council on the Aging WA.

“It’s particularly traumatic if there’s dementia involved.

“While the family understands why they cannot see their loved one, the person with dementia may not understand this and it can be quite traumatic for people with dementia when removed from contact with their loved ones.”

Visiting rules can also become difficult for families and friends to manage when the person is in hospital or in care and is experiencing trauma or nearing the end of life.

Alone at end of life

Perth woman Deb Letica’s mother-in-law Maria, who suffered from dementia, died in an aged care home just over two weeks ago.

She and her husband were called and told to come quickly. Upon arrival, they had to wait for the results of their rapid antigen test, a standard COVID-19 procedure for entering an aged care facility.

Her mother-in-law died minutes before they were allowed in, with no family around her.

“I was disappointed,” Ms Letica said.

“I wasn’t angry because it’s not the staff’s fault. The dementia takes away their dignity and we couldn’t even grant her last wish.”

Health Consumers’ Council of Western Australia executive director Suzanna Robertson said such situations were extremely distressing for families.

A woman in galsses in headshot
Suzanna Robertson says it’s important for families to stay in touch with their loved ones.(ABC News: Nicolas Perpitch)

She said “care, compassion and connection” were very important at this time, and those left behind needed to be given the opportunity to get involved.

It was also important that cultural needs were taken into account, including for indigenous families, with sensitivity.

Some visiting restrictions are easing

Visitor restrictions are beginning to ease as the pandemic continues.

The last directions for aged care homes, more than two visitors may be permitted to enter the facility “for the purpose of providing urgent or end-of-life care or support to a resident”.

The center should maintain a log of additional visitors and notify the Chief Medical Officer of Health as soon as possible.

Juniper chief executive Chris Hall has 26 retirement homes for the elderly across the state overseas, including the one where Denise Brown lives.

Juniper was the first aged care provider to have a case of COVID-19 at one of its centres, at the Cygnet Residential Aged Care home in the Perth suburb of Bentley.

The front of an aged care facility.
The facility was forced to close to all visitors when the first cases of COVID emerged.(Provided)

Restrictions expected to continue for some time

Mr Hall has seen what he calls a gradual “normalization” of visiting arrangements as COVID-19 becomes a part of everyday life.

A close-up of Chris Hall's head standing outside an aged care facility
Juniper chief executive Chris Hall said removing COVID restrictions could still be a long way off. (ABC News: Nicolas Perpitch)

He said there had been a decrease in restrictions over time as elder care providers learned more about COVID-19 and how to respond to it.

“There is now some flexibility around new guidance and around industry code that will allow us to increase this number if we need it for emergency situations or end-of-life arrangements.”

But the restrictions are not expected to fall anytime soon.

“Until we can ensure that our vulnerable people are safe in the community, and we know at the moment they are not, I don’t see the restrictions being lifted until that happens. , and it could still be a long way off,” Ms. Allen said.

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