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​Is it safe for me to move into aged care during COVID-19?

Making the decision to place a loved one in aged care is a difficult one for many families. The current COVID-19 pandemic adds an extra dimension to this.

Many people who were thinking about a move into aged care before COVID-19 may have put off the decision and now you might require aged care more than ever. [Source: Shutterstock]
Many people who were thinking about a move into aged care before COVID-19 may have put off the decision and now you might require aged care more than ever. [Source: Shutterstock]

But even in these times, a crisis can hit resulting in a loss of independence and the urgent need to move into a nursing home.

But amid the news of coronavirus clusters in aged care homes in New South Wales and Victoria it is understandable there is apprehension about a move in the current environment. So is it safe for you to move into an aged care facility during a pandemic?

Talking Aged Care put this question to a number of aged care professionals and the short answer is yes.

Is moving into aged care during a viral crisis a good idea?

Many people who were thinking about a move before COVID-19 may have put off the decision and you may need to consider if you really require aged care, but if a move is inevitable, the first thing you should take into account is your personal circumstances.

Some things to consider are your current care needs and lifestyle needs, and the location you are looking to move into.

Tamar Krebs, Founder and Co-Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Group Homes Australia, says that it's important to access your current situation before deciding to move into an aged care facility during COVID-19.

"It really depends on the family and on the care circumstances. It would be wrong to just give a one size fits all [answer] for everyone. But it is very important to look at the care needs of the person at this time and decide if this is in the best benefit of the person," explains Ms Krebs.

"Families are obviously shaken with enormous amounts of grief when making these decisions anyway, even more so having to make it during a difficult time where some facilities are in lockdown and some facilities aren't.

"Out in the community is where the risk lies at the moment, that is where COVID was spreading."

So while current visitor restrictions on aged care facilities mean only limited or no access to family members, they have made nursing homes a very safe space to be living during the pandemic due to less people moving in and out of the facility.

Are aged care facilities still accepting new residents?

Even though these are extraordinary circumstances we're dealing with, all aged care facilities should still be accepting new residents, unless they don't have any beds available or they have a live COVID-19 outbreak.

The main difficulty at the moment lies in visiting homes before moving in. Where previously the advice was to visit the nursing home you are considering, at the moment many aged care facilities have to reduce, limit or cancel all onsite tours to prospective residents.

Ms Krebs says Group Homes were initially limiting their tours to specific houses, or new houses that were empty, but eventually had to move to virtual tours instead.

She adds it is still really important for new residents to see their rooms and common areas before they move in.

Placement Consultant from moveU in Victoria, Judy Warren, has similar views, saying she would never recommend or take a client to a facility if she hasn't been to the facility in the last six months.

"Our business is all about not an empty bed, but connecting people with the right environment, it is all about the culture of a home and how you have lived," says Ms Warren.

"For us, it is all about matching people up rather than just an empty bed in an area that you may have lived in or near your family."

She adds that people will need to undertake their homework of facilities in a different way to make sure the nursing home they may be considering is right for their older loved one or for yourself.

Should I put off entering aged care?

Ms Warren says that her business has decided not to place anyone that has dementia into aged care in the current circumstances due to strict laws around new residents in facilities.

In Victoria, aged care facilities have to enforce 14 day isolation of any new residents moving into their nursing homes.

In cases like this, Ms Warren says people with dementia would not cope well with being isolated for such a long period.

Ms Warren believes it would be a good idea to move into aged care if it was an emergency for a person with dementia, otherwise, it could be a very anxiety-inducing time.

She adds that everyone should consider whether the older person planning to move into aged care is prepared for such a long time in isolation.

These rules are only enforceable in Victoria, but it is important to check with My Aged Care or any providers you are considering to understand what rules there are for new residents into aged care facilities.

In all States and Territories, new residents that arrive from hospital are required to be isolated for 14 days and swab tested.

Most facilities, outside of Victoria, are implementing swab tests for new residents that arrive from a location that has a high risk of contamination. Those results usually come back within 24 to 48 hours, so you would not be placed in isolation for too long.

Other than considering how you would cope with this isolation, Ms Warren doesn't believe there is a reason why people shouldn't be able to enter aged care and receive the services and care they require.

Ms Krebs advises people to not make reactive decisions about moving into aged care but consider the longer benefits that would come from the move.

"I would encourage people to look at it as not a short term but long term plan because this is going to stick around for a while and people need care now, and they need stimulation now, and they need to be connected now," explains Ms Krebs.

"I would be looking at ways to address that, whether it's in their own home needing care or moving into a residential facility or group home, look at how you can do it in the best way so you are not compromising the person's care needs as opposed to pushing it off because this [coronavirus] may be around for another six months to a year. It's not something that is going away fast."

For people who do decide to stay at home and receive care during COVID-19, Ms Krebs recommends that family and friends set up a strong support network that ensures not only are they safe at home but are in a connected environment.

"It's the responsibility of society to make sure we are not creating an underlying pandemic of increasing mental health," says Ms Krebs.

What about communication with my family?

The last few weeks there have been lots of discussion about whether or not aged care homes should allow visitors to come into their facility during the COVID-19 crisis. The Federal Government is currently working with the aged care sector to make a national code of conduct around aged care visitations.

So while some facilities may have a more stringent visitation process, and some have made the decision to close their facility to all outside visitors, it's important to talk with your provider around what safeguards they are putting in place to protect their residents.

For some facilities that may be in risk areas with COVID-19 outbreaks, like parts of Sydney or North West Tasmania, they would likely be on lockdown from visitors to protect the residents from the virus. However that does not mean that residents are confined to their room and can't have any contact with anyone. 

Unless there is a particular health risk and a person needs to be isolated, residents should be able to move freely around the home and still be engaged in activities, be it with increased focus on hygiene and social distancing.

Ms Krebs says that all facilities have increased their activities and engagement with residents to make sure they are feeling connected with their families through technology.

There are many examples of providers that have set up Skype for their residents or have made other communication options available to stay in contact with loved ones.

Additionally, most aged care facilities are being creative with how they are keeping their residents engaged.

Ms Warren says she knows of one provider in Victoria that has a large garden backing onto a main road, and residents of the facility talk to their loved ones from across the road.

"People are making efforts to make people connect or stay connected with families. The amount of online rooms and all this kind of [video] chatting with people is really taking off big time," says Ms Warren.

For more information about the coronavirus, visit the Aged Care Guide's COVID-19 update page. 

Do you have any questions about the coronavirus that you want answered? Tell us in the comments below or email journalist@dps.com.au.

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