This aged care worker explains what it’s really like inside her nursing home during the coronavirus pandemic

This week Prime Minister Scott Morison reminded aged care providers that recommendations by health experts was to “not shut people off or to lock them away in their rooms." This staff member of an aged care facility shares her experience and the impact of COVID-19 restrictions are having on residents.

I have been working in the aged sector for over 20 years now. My passion has always been to work in this sector. Working in aged care is rewarding but it has also been challenging and heartbreaking as there are never enough nurses and carers to meet our residents' emotional and clinical needs. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken understaffing in aged care to another heart-breaking level.

The facility I work at has been locked down for over a month now. Our elders are isolated from their families, friends and the community. Care packages are not allowed, and concerts and bus trips have been cancelled.

Then you add social distancing, so only a limited number of elders are allowed to eat in the dining room with most are encouraged to eat in their rooms for safety reasons. Due to coronavirus, all large group activities have been cancelled.

Some residents are resilient; they are cognitively aware about what’s going on. They are in their room all the time and watching the news. However some have gone into withdrawal, they have lost their appetite for food and then you have more increase of verbal abuse from some.

As workers, our anxiety is high, no one wants to be that nurse who brings COVID-19 in because we know so many elders could die.

The impact of this has been very hard on our residents. They feel abandoned by their families who used to visit regularly. Many residents are unaware of the pandemic around them and those who do know worry deeply for their families.

Some of our elders, who don ‘t like the food provided and preferred to eat food given to them by their families, are now slowing starving themselves. They are all eating less than before as a meal alone provides nutrients but doesn’t feed the soul like a shared meal with friends and family.

The elders here spend most of their time alone in their rooms and due to the lack of staff, only a few small activities are being held with limited places. They used to have 30 to 40 activities and that has decreased to six per day. The residents are bored. Those who used to get visitors everyday have been suffering the most.

As a carer it breaks my heart to see the residents in that situation. I just want to sit with them, speak with them and tell them a story but I don’t have the time. The level of care we provide to our residents has increased but the hours and the number of staff have not increased and that has made it challenging for us.

I feel a lot of guilt that I am not able to provide the level of care that I want to and I always keep thinking I wish I could spend five more minutes with one or two residents.

I am not even seeing my own parents to avoid any cross-contamination.

We staff love our residents and do all we can to ensure the phone calls and video calls from family and friends are getting through. We desperately want to reassure families that their loved ones are going well and to spend more time with elders to let them know we care and hopefully bring a smile to their faces during these lonely times.

However, we have not been given any extra staff to help in this task. All the work we struggle to do normally with so few staff still needs to be done in addition to the extra precautions we have to take for COVID-19.

With increased loneliness we have also seen an increase in challenging behaviours from the people in our care. Without daily social interactions, their health and abilities decline.

I would love to spend time with the quiet man alone in his room, but you have caring to do, families to reassure and the elder who screams and cries gets more attention than the quiet guy.

As workers, our anxiety is high, no one wants to be that nurse who brings COVID-19 in because we know so many elders could die.

We have been self-isolating from our own loved ones from well before the restrictions began in order to keep our elders safe. Our hearts break as residents plead to get out of their rooms, but there are already too many outside and we have to tell them to stay. We are being pushed to our limits trying to provide more care but there only two staff and up to twenty needing care.

... our elders don't have a wealth of time.

I am not even seeing my own parents to avoid any cross-contamination. Sometimes I feel guilty that I care for other people’s parents but not my own. My parents are in their 70s but I am lucky that my siblings understand my situation. They help my parents with groceries and anything else they would need.

At my work we have created a great support group because we know that we will only have each other for the next six months. I would like to think that we are resilient and determined and there is always good and there is always hope. We have our moments of joy and fun. You hold dear those moments when you have provided love and the elders know we care.

In time, COVID-19 will pass as all things do, but our elders don't have a wealth of time.

We will continue to do our best as workers to ensure they have the dignity and respect they deserve, despite, as always, not having enough staff. If we just keep trying, we know we will have done our best to keep our elders safe. I just wish there were more of us.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

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