COTA calls for an ‘Essential Visitor’ system in aged care after fresh reports of damaging impacts on residents due to extended lockdowns in Melbourne and Sydney

Council on the Ageing (COTA) Australia is calling on all State and Territory governments to immediately ensure that their public health orders and directions relating to COVID-19 and nursing homes  include a provision that all aged care residents have access to at least one ‘Essential Visitor’ who can see them in person, even during a Covid outbreak (with appropriate infection control measures). Providers must be required to follow this.

The call comes as reports emerged last week that some of the nursing homes in Victoria with an active outbreak are having to isolate residents in their rooms over multiple weeks based on orders from Victorian Public Health Units, without contact with family, other residents or even a walk in the garden. There have been similar issues in NSW.

While people in Victoria and NSW receive greater and greater freedoms, despite continuing circulation of COVID-19, many fully vaccinated aged care residents are being denied freedom and exposed to cruel and  harmful levels of extended isolation from loved ones and fellow residents.

COTA Chief Executive, Ian Yates AM, says “The ‘Essential Visitor’ system must formally recognise that visits from loved ones are essential care for aged care residents and give absolute clarity that the person nominated by a resident as their ‘Essential Visitor’ must be able to visit them in person at all times, with appropriate health measures in place.

“State and Territory health regulations and directions need to urgently mandate that every resident can nominate at least one Essential Visitor (and a backup) to remain connected with, even during an outbreak, so that residents receive the care and support for their social or emotional wellbeing that only a loved one can provide.

“COTA welcomes constructive discussion with Victorian health authorities over the past week which we are now hopeful will lead to an early implementation of this proposal, and other measures to ease these situations. We are also hopeful of a positive  response from NSW authorities. This arrangement needs to be in place in all States and Territories.”

COTA has also received fresh reports that some nursing homes that are not required to be locked down due to an outbreak, still refuse to let families visit their loved ones. COTA is calling on aged care providers to balance the risk of COVID-19 with the need for aged care residents  to remain socially connected and to receive the support from their loved ones that is essential to their physical, emotional and mental health.

“It’s deeply concerning that at this stage in the pandemic we are still seeing some aged care providers not following the Industry Code for Visiting Residential Aged Care Homes and doing the wrong thing, forcing unnecessary and cruel additional restrictions on older Australians in their care, when public health advice does not direct them to,” Mr Yates said.

“COTA has received several shocking reports. These include one resident who had not seen her family for months who gave notice to her provider that she was moving out but was physically restrained and prevented from leaving when her husband came to pick her up. Another older person living with dementia, who tested positive for COVID-19,  was isolated and not allowed to shower for 8 days because of a belief that the steam would spread the virus.

“Providers making up their own rules is a clear breach of human rights. We have said repeatedly that aged care must be grounded in giving older Australians choice, dignity and respect. Locking them up over long periods robs them of all these things.

“We know that prolonged isolation causes irreversible harm. Given the level of active cases in the community in Victoria and NSW, if aged care providers lock everyone down at every nearby outbreak, we’ll see rolling lockdowns for months. Both Government and many providers need to stop doing this.

“The Industry Code for Visiting Residential Aged Care Homes has always provided for what have come to be known as “Partners in Care”, now recognised by the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, but not all residents have a Partner in Care, but they must have the right to have at least one Named Visitor, who can always visit, with appropriate infection control measures in place.

Media contact: Ian Yates 0418 835 439; Hannah Craft 0423 377 965