Isolation is becoming a second pandemic for the elderly

The writer is chief executive and founder of Tovertafel, a cognitive stimulation system

The news that mass testing could be rolled out to UK care homes to allow residents to receive visits from family and friends who are Covid-19 negative, is very welcome. It comes after more than 60 organisations and experts in early November said the second lockdown must not prevent care home visits, warning a ban would cause “extreme anguish” and deny residents their human rights.

Health secretary Matt Hancock has pledged to make visiting possible in care homes by Christmas, and launched a pilot testing programme, but experts say this will take too long, and urge the government to roll the scheme out nationally immediately. Care home managers have also said £500m in government funding is needed to make homes safe, and expressed concern about how they could support regular testing for visitors without extra staff.

The reality is that current safety measures — including the use of prison-style screens, visitor pods and window visits — are too complicated for many homes to implement, and the risk of allowing visits without them too high, so they are in danger of being prevented entirely. Research found 50 per cent of residents in tier 1 and 2 were already denied visits before the second lockdown. Without a full testing programme and funding, there is a bleak winter ahead for thousands of residents. For those in cognitive decline, this could inflict irreparable damage. 

There are some 400,000 care home residents in the UK, with over 70 per cent suffering from dementia. The disruption that visitor restrictions pose to their routines accelerates the progress of conditions like dementia, while lack of contact with loved ones damages their wellbeing and quality of life. Measures designed to facilitate safe visits are flawed even when they are implemented: screen partitions, for example, are not practical for those with dementia, many of whom are immobile and have difficulties with speech.

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Most residents with cognitive problems cannot understand why they cannot see family and friends; many say they feel abandoned and anxious. Inside homes, the stimulation and socialisation of group activity can be transformative; technologies such as interactive light play are proved to boost morale and reduce apathy among the elderly — but even these interactions are being cut due to Covid-19 measures.

Isolation is fast becoming the real pandemic for the elderly. The Alzheimer’s Society reports 82 per cent of dementia patients have showed deterioration since lockdown. This includes difficulty concentrating, memory loss and increased agitation. Meanwhile, figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal deaths from dementia and Alzheimer’s in private homes in England rose 79 per cent during lockdown.

For people with dementia, routine interaction and careful observation are vital. The elderly are now dying from isolation, depression and lack of close supervision. Some won’t eat unless a family member feeds them. Others find video conferencing acutely distressing.

Stopping Covid-19 should not mean suspending the rights of those in long-term care or disregarding their quality of life and mental, as well as physical, wellbeing. Compared with the last lockdown, we have more knowledge about the virus and how it is spread, enhanced testing capabilities and more personal protective equipment. By carrying out individual risk assessments and ensuring meeting places are well ventilated, we can ease restrictions safely.

Though the news that an effective vaccine is on the horizon provides hope worldwide, mass immunisation remains a way off. Unfortunately, many care home residents do not have time to spare. The government needs to move fast to implement measures that will allow care home residents to connect with family and friends. Action must be taken now to save lives.

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