Senior man with mask

West Australian aged care visitor limits expected to remain for some time, despite COVID-19 restrictions easing

Published: 5 July 2022
  • wa
  • 5 July 2022
  • ABC News

Brian Ridge visits his wife, Denise Brown, who lives with Alzheimer's disease, in her Perth aged care home almost every day.

As they sit together, she has a cup of tea and a scone, and he asks her if she loves 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 the restrictions on visitors to residential aged care facilities and hospitals, designed to protect the most vulnerable people.

"I usually take her for a drive, we go down the coast," Mr Ridge said.

"She loves to look at the water, especially if the sun's sparkling on it. It's really good."

'You can't have open slather'

Limits on visitors to aged care homes, hospitals and disability support accommodation are some of the last remaining COVID-19 restrictions.

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

Under the current West Australian health directions, authorised by the state's Chief Health Officer Andrew Robertson, only two people can visit a resident in an aged care home each day, to limit any spread of COVID-19.

Mr Ridge and his wife's sister are usually the only ones who visit her, and he believed the current settings were right.

"I don't think you can have open slather when we've got things like COVID," he said.

"It's just too dangerous. And these people are really susceptible."

In hospitals, patients are allowed up to two visitors during visiting hours, as well as any "approved visitors", such as parents and carers.

Larger families upset at access

But not everyone has had the same experience with visitor rules as Mr Ridge, especially people with larger families.

"It's very distressing for families when they are not able to see their loved one as often as they would like to," Council on the Ageing WA chief executive Christine Allen said.

"It's particularly traumatising if there is dementia involved.

"While the family understand why they can't see their loved one, the person living with dementia might not understand that and it can be quite traumatic with people living with dementia when they are removed from contact with their loved ones."

The visitation rules can also become difficult for families and friends to deal with when the person is in hospital or in care and is experiencing trauma or nearing the end of their life.

Alone at the end of life

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

She and her husband were called and told to come quickly. When they arrived, they had to wait for their rapid antigen test results, a standard COVID-19 procedure to enter an aged care facility.

Her mother-in-law died minutes before they were allowed in, without any family around her.

"I was disappointed," Ms Letica said.

"I wasn't angry because it's not the staff's fault. Dementia takes away their dignity and we couldn't even give her her last wish."

Health Consumers' Council of Western Australia executive director Suzanna Robertson said situations like these were extremely distressing for families.

She said "care and compassion and connectedness" were very important at this time, and those left behind needed to be given an opportunity to be involved.

It was also important for cultural needs to be addressed, including for Indigenous families, in a sensitive manner.

Some visitor restrictions ease

Visitor restrictions are starting to ease as the pandemic continues.

The latest directions for aged care homes stated more than two visitors can be allowed to enter the facility "for the purposes of providing urgent or end of life care or support to a resident".

The centre has to keep a record of the extra visitors and notify the Chief Health Officer as soon as they can.

Juniper chief executive Chris Hall overseas 26 aged care homes across the state, including the one where Denise Brown lives.

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

Restrictions expected to continue for some time

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

He said there had been a lessening of restrictions over time as aged care providers had learnt more about COVID-19 and how to respond to it.

"There's quite a bit of flexibility now around the new directions and around the industry code that will enable us to increase that number if we need to for urgent situations or end of life arrangements."

But the restrictions are not expected to fall away anytime soon.

"Until we can guarantee that our vulnerable people are safe in the community, and we know that at the moment they're not, I don't see that restrictions will be removed until that happens, and that could be a long way off," Ms Allen said.