In these challenging times of COVID and subsequent lock-downs, residents of aged care homes can often feel isolation and loneliness. According to Dr. Melanie Wroth, who is the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission Chief Clinical Advisor, there are three main issues affecting residents right now. (Aging Agenda, August 31, 2021)
A sense of isolation can bring psychosocial decline where people become depressed, lonely, frightened, bored, and very anxious. It’s tough when social interactions become so limited, and some residents may not fully understand why their visitors have stopped coming. Or they may feel anxious at the thought of falling ill.
A second issue is that of loss of physical condition. The normal activities that aged care facilities provide need to be curtailed or cancelled in lockdown, and with people often stuck in their rooms, their usual movements are also limited. This can lead to a loss of muscle strength which can, in turn, lead to frailty and falls. A loss of independence can follow, and this too can have a negative psychosocial impact.
The third issue relates to nutrition. For many of us, eating is a social activity, but for residents, eating meals alone in their room can lead to a loss of appetite. And as Dr Wroth points out, there may be less monitoring of intake when residents are not sharing meals in the dining room.
These three areas “all impact profoundly on the status and the quality of life of residents.” Dr. Wroth said.
Suggestions to minimise social isolation impact
So what can be done to counter these potential issues and keep residents engaged and connected?
Supporting aged care residents to stay connected with loved ones, through video chat platforms such as Zoom, and instant messaging apps like WhatsApp can really help keep loneliness at bay. Encourage families of residents to connect frequently this way where possible, and to help the older adults in their lives become proficient users of this technology (if they are not already). Be Connected is an Australia-wide initiative empowering all Australians to thrive in a digital world. It offers resources and support for anyone who wants to build digital skills and confidence.
Sharing emails with safe links to entertaining and interesting activities, jokes, news, and music is something friends and families can do to help.
Entertainment available in rooms is often an underused resource. Highlighting television or radio programs that may be of interest is a simple way to connect, to let people know you are thinking of them, and to reduce boredom. Music is a great mood improver, so supporting residents to tune in to hear their favourite music and or radio programs can be great company and a great antidote to low mood.
Simple and safe exercise programs can also be shared, to help residents maintain their physical condition while in lockdown. Care needs to be taken to ensure any exercises are not potentially dangerous, so speaking to experts in this field is important, to ensure each program is appropriate for residents involved.
Appetite loss, changes in food consumption, and weight loss can all be flags for malnutrition. Monitoring for this during COVID lockdowns is essential. A simple tool is the Mini Nutritional Assessment (MNA). Another great resource is The Lantern Project which aims to improve the quality of life of all aged care residents in Australia through good food and nutrition. They have some special tips, including hot breakfasts, soups, and smoothies, and getting families and friends involved to dine together virtually over Zoom or Facetime.
In difficult times, we all need to work together and look out for each other. Older Australians are vulnerable to the negative impacts of isolation, but if we look for small ways to keep them engaged and connected, we can help them get through until life opens up more fully again.