A support group for care home residents and their families has told of its deep concerns after Health Minister Robin Swann today expressed his determination to see visits facilitated across Northern Ireland over Christmas and into the New Year.

Spokeswoman Julieann McNally from the Care Home Advice and Support NI group (CHASNI), said: “It was all too little, too late.

“The impact on loved ones and their families has been devastating,” said Ms McNally.

Mr Swann said: ““I have stated publicly that doors should not be closed to visits, especially at this time of year. Families do not understand why some care homes have been able to facilitate responsible visiting while others have not.

Under Department of Health visiting guidance issued in September, all care homes should facilitate a range of methods that provide for safely managed and meaningful contact between residents and their loved ones. That guidance has not been adopted uniformly throughout Northern Ireland’s care home sector. Many families have reported that they have only had limited and impersonal contact with a relative since March.

A joint letter to the care home sector has today been issued by Chief Nursing Officer Charlotte McArdle, Chief Social Work Officer Sean Holland and Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride.

Key points include:

  • The letter informs the sector that the care home regulator, the RQIA, will assess the approach being taken to visiting when undertaking inspections of residential and nursing homes, and considering compliance with the relevant care standards.
  • Visiting policy and appropriate implementation of the policy into practice will therefore be a material consideration in the inspection and regulation of each care home.
  • The letter also indicates that the current income guarantee funding support measure is likely to be linked in future to the implementation of appropriate visiting arrangements. Income guarantee support was introduced at an early stage in the Covid-19 pandemic. It provides a guaranteed level of funding for care homes, regardless of occupancy levels.
  • As an additional assurance, Covid-19 testing will be made available to one visitor or care partner per care home resident per week over the Christmas period and up to Friday 8 January 2021.

Meanwhile Age UK in Britain has warned that progress in resuming care home visiting is stalling and calls on everyone to pull together to make it happen.

The charity has published a new report which revealed just how devastating the suspension of visiting has been for many older people and families – https://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/reports-and-publications/reports-and-briefings/care-in-crisis/behind-the-headlines_in-person-care-home-visiting-decemeber-2020.pdf

Age UK says it is worried that many older people living in care homes will not be reunited with their nearest and dearest by Christmas unless something changes fast.

A recent protest at Stormont over the lack of visiting at care homes in Northern Ireland.

The report contains many heart-rending quotes from respondents: 

“It is bad enough having to have had the need to put a loved one in a home. With lack of contract and unable to take them out for visits home and contact with family , especial grandchildren  it is even more guilt to contend with. Life is passing us by, time that can never be retrieved. I don’t want mum to die away from family a thing she has always dreaded and I promised would not happen.”

”I feel as though I have locked my parents away and thrown the key away”

“I feel terrible, like I have deserted my mum”  

“I feel so very sad, tearful, I miss my hubby so very much we’ve been married 49 years I want to see him and be with him, I used to visit daily and this is torture for me and him!! He has Huntington’s disease and at the end of his life I’m sure this will be his last year”

“Although we speak on the phone [my husband] is confused about why I’m not there and tells me all the time he just needs to see me…. He went into care during lockdown, so I feel lonely and almost as though I am a widow grieving even though I am not. The pain of it all has been unbearable”

“As a much loved aunt who has no children of her own, we are her direct family. She also has a very wide circle of friends who would also like to visit.  She has vascular dementia and does not understand the process of a video call.  Every time she turned her head from the screen she thought I’d left her and she became very anxious.  I’ve asked family and friends to send me photos so I can send them to her.  She doesn’t understand the photos the way I had hoped she might.”

“My dad is totally deaf and I have to use a white board to communicate due to his hearing aids being lost! It’s so difficult communicating with him and not being able to give him a cuddle or hold his hand is difficult. He’s 95yrs old with dementia and prostate cancer.”

“It’s cruel and unfair to keep me apart from my 94-year-old blind mum when l don’t know how long she’s got left. She’s extremely lonely and depressed and is definitely losing the will to live”

Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK, said: “Our new report demonstrates a depth of suffering among all those care home residents and families kept apart by the virus that’s tough to read about, let alone experience. Our hearts go out to the hundred of thousands caught up in this tragedy; it’s clear that for some, their sadness and despair are almost unbearable and in the case of families left behind following bereavement, something that is likely to stay with them for the rest of their lives.

“Most of the families who responded to our survey had been unable to see or speak to their loved one for the best part of a year. Now visiting is supposed to be happening again it’s crucial that the Government’s pledge is delivered; every day counts and we know that for some it’s already too late.” 

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