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Aged care advocates say visits should be allowed at all nursing homes in Victoria if people coming to see fully immunised residents have also had a double dose of a coronavirus vaccine.
Most residents and staff in Australia’s 2600 aged care homes have now had at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine and the NSW state government this week announced from October 11 aged care residents could have two visits daily. Visitors must be fully vaccinated for coronavirus and aged over 12.
Emily Riglar’s grandmother lives in a retirement village and, due to strict COVID-19 rules, rarely has visitors or treatment. Emily, a physiotherapist, has watched her movement go downhill due to on-again off-again visitor bans.Credit:Paul Jeffers
But Victoria’s rules on visitors to aged care homes do not mention vaccination, instead stipulating residents can have visitors for reasons including their “physical or emotional wellbeing”, or if they are living with dementia.
Victorian homes interpret the rules in different ways; some welcome visitors while others insist relatives can only come into a home if a resident’s physical or emotional wellbeing takes a dramatic downturn.
One sign seen by The Age on Friday at a home in Melbourne’s east simply states – in contravention of the Chief Health Officer’s orders – that all visits to residents are suspended other than for end-of-life care.
“We can’t view residential aged care homes as some sort of prison,” said Paul Sadler, chief executive of Aged and Community Services Australia, which represents not-for-profit homes.
Emily Riglar’s grandmother, who the family has asked not be named.
Mr Sadler said if guests were fully vaccinated, and rapid antigen testing was available in homes, they should be allowed in.
“Older people shouldn’t be left out of the road map out of lockdown,” he said. “Older Australians in aged care have suffered through various types of lockdown for the longest period and we can’t just treat them like an afterthought.”
He said Victoria should swiftly adopt similar rules to NSW.
National cabinet was on Friday debating a nationwide policy guaranteeing visitation rights in aged care. Details of that meeting’s decisions were not available by deadline but Aged Care Services Minister Richard Colbeck’s spokesman said the Commonwealth wanted “a return to safe visitation … as soon as possible”.
Last year, 655 residents died with COVID-19 in Victorian aged care homes and almost 2000 contracted the virus. With most residents and staff now fully vaccinated, case numbers have plummeted. There have been four coronavirus deaths in Victorian aged care homes in 2021.
A sign in a Melbourne aged care home on Friday – in contravention of Victorian government orders allowing visits for “care and support”.
A spokeswoman for the Andrews government said visitors who provided care for a resident’s physical or emotional wellbeing, or to prevent harm due to social isolation, were currently allowed in Victorian homes. She conceded some homes applied blanket bans on almost all visitors but pointed out aged care was regulated by the Commonwealth.
As of last Friday, there were 28 active cases of coronavirus in Victorian aged care homes, 25 of them in a facility run by operator Opal in Meadow Heights, in Melbourne’s north.
Physiotherapist Emily Riglar has seen the impact of Victoria’s strict rules for aged care visits on her 94-year-old grandmother, who lives by herself in a retirement village.
Ms Riglar’s grandmother, who the family has asked not be named, had a stroke last year and visitor restrictions and a lack of access to physiotherapy have taken a toll. The lack of support has meant her grandmother has not had the confidence to get outside and walk.
“Three months ago her walking was the best it had been in over a year. Now she has noticed she is getting more tired, and she can’t walk as far,” said Ms Riglar, who fears her grandmother may prematurely reach the point she can no longer live independently.
“At worst, she falls and ends up in hospital. If this happens it would likely be the beginning of further deterioration.”
Thousands of aged care and retirement home residents are missing out on both visitors and regular treatment such as physiotherapy.
Australian Physiotherapy Association Victorian president Tom Hindhaugh said the Andrews government needed to be aware their aged care restrictions were having “a tangible and devastating human cost. We implore the state government to take the long-term health consequences into serious consideration.”
Aged care campaigner Sarah Russell said Victorian homes were much better prepared than in 2020, with vaccination levels high in staff and residents.
“Why can’t a fully vaccinated relative or family member walk into an aged care home where all the residents are vaccinated? If not now, when?”
State opposition ageing spokesman Tim Bull said all homes and retirement villages had a differing interpretation of the state rules, frustrating both relatives and residents. “In a township like where I am, Bairnsdale, [these] different rules cause situations where next-door neighbours, one can see their elderly parent who’s in care and the other can’t,” he said.
Mr Bull said that with Victoria on a clear pathway to opening up, people with a double vaccination status combined with the ability to rapidly test visitors “provides a clear pathway to get people in to see their loved ones”.
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