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NPHET needs to move faster to find ways to allow us visit our loved ones in nursing homes

Dublin woman Therese Bruton’s mother is in a nursing home. She says enough is enough, they need to see their loved ones.

I AM A primary school teacher working in South Dublin trying my best to teach my 28 senior infants remotely. I live with my 17-year-old son. He is a 5th-year student.

Adjusting to a new regime and remote online learning, there was initially a period of frustration and uncertainty for both of us. A learning curve for teachers, students and parents everywhere. We have found the new normal for us, for now.

My Mam will be 93 years old in July and is currently living through this coronavirus lockdown in a Dublin nursing home. She’s there since 6 March, that’s over 80 days.

A proud woman

She’s a Ringsend girl and is extremely proud of her roots. She lived with me for four years before finally moving to the nursing home. Mam has many ailments, the most noticeable one currently is her depression.

Whilst lockdown came early and promptly for those in nursing home settings, the sector, as we now know, was one of the last to receive prompt and adequate testing, an adequate supply of PPE equipment and staffing pressures relating to the pandemic. We, the families, were all terrified. 

Many nursing homes worked tirelessly on their own initiative to ensure the physical safety of their residents and staff. These nursing homes are to be highly praised for their Herculean efforts to protect our loved ones.

Sadly, we are all too aware of the many hundreds of older nursing home residents who lost their lives due to Covid-19, and the struggles and heartache for the affected families. We can’t even begin to imagine what they have been through.

Their wellbeing matters

It is absolutely imperative that we continue to protect the physical health of this vulnerable group in society, but we must also address the huge forgotten issue -  safeguarding their mental health.

Issues such as loneliness, anxiety, confusion, worry and depression are all very real emotions experienced by older people, particularly during these unprecedented times, but especially for those who live in nursing homes away from family and friends who would normally visit them.

My Mam finds it difficult to understand why she can’t simply sit with her family and friends on the grounds of the nursing home. She is weary of this daily waving through the window at me and having to get the staff to help her answer her mobile phone.

I have heard the same from other relatives of the nursing home residents, some who don’t go to wave as they know their loved one will be then confused and expecting them to come in and visit, or take them out for a walk.

Some are unable to use mobile phones without assistance, or to just call their families whenever they feel like. It is also impacting on the mental health of husbands, wives, partners or children of those in nursing homes, not just the residents themselves.  I am in contact with many such families and the stress and anxiety levels have been high for all those going through this awful ordeal.

Mam and I have talked about all the restrictions. She finds it all hard to comprehend. “It’s worse than World War II” she says, and she should know. My Mam has been depressed and sick in recent weeks and the distancing from her family and regular visitors has played its part in her current depressive episode. This could be easily resolved for her and others with some access to loved ones. Mam is out of sync, as are many of the residents in every nursing home nationwide.

A possible solution

I have been thinking about nursing homes all through this and how they work, the care they provide. I have come up with a proposal for social distancing visits to nursing homes and I hope the authorities will consider this approach. I have written to all relevant bodies.

In many nursing homes there are gardens, outdoor spaces, where it would be feasible to timetable visits with our loved ones with the help of the nursing home staff, with social distancing in place and the use of face masks, and to have some physical face-to-face conversations with them, to reassure them, comfort them, to let them know they are loved and important to us.

Setting up a system like this is surely possible at this stage, now that we have flattened the curve of this disease? The population is familiar with social distancing now and has learned to work with it, and I believe families of residents would work well with nursing home staff to implement this timetabled type of visitation.

The time is right now for thinking of the residents who really need contact with loved ones, even at a distance. I was heartened to read last night that Dr Tony Holohan was open to considering creative ways to facilitate visits in the coming weeks.

shutterstock_458894428 Visits from loved ones is a vital help for nursing home residents. Therese suggests they continue, at a safe distance. Shutterstock / FamVeld Shutterstock / FamVeld / FamVeld

Myself, my family and friends, and those I know who also have loved ones in nursing homes would like our voices heard. We want to pressurise the Government, Nursing Homes Ireland, the HSE, NPHET and all the health experts and the media to begin the discussions. We insist that action be taken now, not in a further phase in August. These discussions need to be the top priority on the agenda at NPHET meetings. 

I have heard rumours that talks are due to take place when it comes to opening visitation to nursing homes, and Dr Holohan’s comments last night were welcome, but we have had little or no feedback from all the sectors we contacted. Waiting for future re-opening ‘phases’ to implement any imaginative visiting measures in nursing homes will be too late, I believe.

Many of our loved ones have died from Covid-19, that’s true, but I believe many more will die of loneliness by then, they will simply give up. We will continue to be their advocates and we will continue to campaign on their behalf until visits in some format are permitted soon.

Before now, no one has wanted to talk about nursing homes in Ireland. It is one of the frustrating reflections of our healthcare system. Yesterday’s exchanges in the Dáil at least shone a light on the sector. There have been far too many deaths in these homes because of this coronavirus. We are afraid to talk about it, but it’s important that we do, it is incumbent on all of us as a society to find a solution quickly, so we can resume our visits to relatives.

As it currently stands nursing homes residents have to endure another 11 weeks of lockdown without visitors. How would any other individual or group feel about this restriction? We talk about the mental health of the youth, the teenagers and other groups throughout this whole pandemic and rightly so, but can we now afford older people the same respect?

Last night I spoke to my aunt who is also in a nursing home on the north side of Dublin city. She said that other residents in her nursing home were afraid. “They are afraid they will be dead before they get to see anybody”.

There may come a time when you or I will face a period of our lives in nursing homes. As a friend of mine said we need to help ease this transition for all our citizens in the same humane way. We are pleading with the powers that be to find a new normal for our loved ones in nursing homes, urgently.

Therese Bruton is a teacher living in Dublin.

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