Professional Comment

Managing Isolation in Care Homes During the COVID-19 Crisis

Simon Kezic-Williams, operations director at Shaw healthcare, comments on the potential damage of long-term social isolation in care homes because of the pandemic – and what care homes can do to balance the risk of COVID-19 with facilitating vital social engagement.

It is no secret that the roller coaster of the last 12 months has put unprecedented pressure on the care sector, forcing those within it to adapt and pull together to ensure staff and residents remained as protected as possible from COVID-19 – something much easier said than done.

Infection control within a care home is not easy, but the sector did what it needed to in order to limit the spread of the virus, through strict hygiene practices and ensuring those visiting the home are only doing so if it is absolutely necessary. This did, of course, mean that care homes had to make the heart-breaking decision to stop visits from family and friends. This was seen as a temporary measure, but of course the ongoing prevalence of the virus in our communities meant such measures have now, in 2021, become the ‘new normal’. But what impact does such a sustained period of physical isolation from loved ones have on care home residents?

As always, families play a huge part in the care process. Not being able to see your loved-one in person has an immense emotional impact, not only for our residents but for their friends and relatives who rely on the importance of a regular visit. When the virus first emerged, we quickly mobilised a digitally focussed approach, doing our best to link residents and relatives through tablets and smartphones, and getting them accustomed to video-calling platforms.

As restrictions began to be lifted, we were able to manage some socially distanced meetings outside but we weren’t so fortunate during the second wave, as sunny weather made way for a cold, wet and dark winter, and our concerns around residents’ mental health wellbeing became all the more acute. We turned our attention to finding a more long-term solution that would enable residents and loved ones to meet each other safely indoors, all year round.

This led to us signing up to an exciting trial at Wylesfield, one of our care homes in Mid Wales. Working with the Welsh Government, we agreed to host the first of a number of ‘visiting pods’ in the lead up to Christmas. Brought in on a six-month, rental basis, the pods have allowed the home to offer indoor visits, safely separated from other residents and staff. Visitors were tested on arrival and, on evidence of a negative result, embarked on a carefully managed meeting while also wearing PPE. While normality certainly hadn’t resumed, it felt like a step in the right direction.

The positive impact of this cannot be understated. One resident – 97- year-old Rosina Mayer – said how “having the pod will make us part of the community again, instead of feeling like we’re being shut away”. She wasn’t alone, with many of the residents taking advantage of the initiative to see their loved ones in person over the festive period and beyond. Since this trial, we have brought in similar pod in another one of our homes, offering a lifeline for many residents and relatives.

Despite these advances, we remain pragmatic. Although regulations in all devolved nations are starting to be lifted, COVID-19 will not be leaving our shores any time soon and we need to continually adapt if we want to provide a high-level of care across the board. But, with these new methods of working coupled with the excellent progress made in the NHS vaccine rollout to date, we are starting to see a glimmer of light at the end of what has been a very, very long tunnel.