Posted: 27 May 2020 5 min. read

Faces of COVID-19: An Aged Care Perspective

Like many industries that are facing the challenges presented by COVID-19, aged care providers have had to adapt quickly to the changing environment to keep their residents, an incredibly vulnerable population, safe. 

This goal, along with keeping residents and families well-informed on the current position of the facilities across Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria is front of mind for Prue Densley, the EGM of Consumer Experience St Vincent’s Care Services.

We spoke to Prue to understand the challenges that COVID-19 has presented for the aged care industry, and how they have responded to the changing government guidelines to keep their residents safe.

Q: Tell us about the situation for aged care and for the residents.

Prue: A lot of different industries have been challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic, in many ways. For us, aged care is an essential service, and so the show must go on. That said, there were a few specific challenges in the early days that we very quickly needed to overcome.

First, the restrictions and how they applied to aged care, were difficult to decipher in the early days - particularly when there were updates on a daily-basis. This left it up to many aged care providers to make their own interpretations, and then manage the expectations of residents and their families based on that.

Second, when there were the first cases of COVID-19 and then subsequent deaths in the aged care facilities, it featured prominently across media sources and we noticed a shift where aged care started to receive more attention. The guidelines started to become more detailed and we were able to quickly respond to that. 

For us, infection control and dealing with influenza is our everyday, so we are well prepared to deal with those sorts of viruses. COVID-19, however, has been unchartered territory. The guidelines have been changing daily and filtering the right information to the right people at the right time has been a challenge. Fortunately, we have now found ourselves in a rhythm where we can respond to the continuous changes and communicate that effectively. 

Q: What are some of the impacts and implications of COVID-19 for aged care residents?

Prue: For us, the number one priority is keeping our residents safe and well. With the guidelines around reduced visitations, residents have had more time to themselves, and therefore have more time to read negative news coming through the media. We are acutely aware that we couldn’t sacrifice their physical wellbeing for their overall mental and emotional health, but understood how reduced family support could lead to feeling isolated and lonely. 

There is also the impact to residents’ families. Again, with the imposed restrictions and people losing work hours or their jobs, there is an increased desire to visit and be with loved ones. Unfortunately, we couldn’t accommodate all these wishes, as it could impact upon the safety of our residents and staff.

We have been closely working within the government guidelines, and with our facilities and staff members to try and find an equal balance.

Q: What are some of the actions that have been taken to overcome the challenges being faced during this time?

Prue: I have been truly impressed by how quickly we’ve been able to respond to the changing guidelines and to take proactive action. We’ve been able to achieve some significant changes in a very short amount of time to be able to respond to the following:

  • We’ve changed the way we operate from a Head Office and Call Centre perspective. We are now available remotely 7 days a week to be able to respond to queries from both families and residents.
  • We’ve changed how we communicate and scaled that up so that we can provide updates to the community more frequently and use more channels than what we were before, keeping everyone abreast of what we are doing.
  • We’ve increased pastoral care and lifestyle staff hours  to support the mental and emotional connection of our residents. 
  • Across the business, our staff are learning new skills and taking on new roles and responsibilities to support our residents. They are helping our residents connect through FaceTiming their families, providing hairdressing services, assisting with different lifestyle activities for example. 

I couldn’t be prouder of how our teams have stepped up and pivoted into different ways of working to care for our residents during this time.

Q: What have you learnt during this experience and what are you proud of?

Prue: I am proud of the ability to change direction because we had a single, unified, shared focus of keeping people safe. We were able to cut through some of the red tape that would otherwise take up time. We have been able to turn things around quickly because of this goal and manage the pandemic as best as we could.

The staff’s resilience during this time has been incredible to see. In the early days, we conducted some scenario planning. In a survey of our staff, 80% of our staff responded that they would turn up and go to work even in a COVID-19 environment, if some of our residents had the virus. This gives us the faith and confidence that our people are here for the right reasons, and truly wedded to our mission of looking after the poor and the vulnerable. 

Aged care has not always been portrayed in the best light recently with the Royal Commission and subsequent media stories. This has led to some of our staff members being embarrassed of wearing their uniform due to the public sentiment. 

Through COVID-19, there has been an increasing sense of pride across our staff, that they are proud to step out in their uniform and feel like a ‘hero’ providing an essential service of compassionate care to our residents.

Q: What lessons and experiences should we take forward, when we return to the “new normal”?

Prue: We have really had to change and made a large amount of headway in a short amount of time, I now feel as though anything is possible.

I would really like to see the sense of pride continue and to maintain this vibe that is rippling across our staff, even after COVID-19 has passed. We’ve set the benchmark for communication and engagement with families and next of kin, residents, and staff, so we are looking at how we can continue to maintain that going forward. Our focus has always been the resident, but now that we have built broader relationships with their families and next of kin, we are in a better place moving forward. 

I am excited about our post COVID-19 activities and what we can focus on to continue to drive transformation. It has brought about some amazing changes and as we keep this laser focus, we will look towards the positive outcomes that the pandemic has brought to us.

More about the author

Naomi Spencer

Naomi Spencer

Senior Consultant, Consulting

Naomi is a registered Psychologist and Senior Consultant within Deloitte’s Human Capital practice. She has worked across large, complex organisations to design and deliver effective change management, engagement and communications interventions for system-wide culture, technology and behavioural change projects. Her experience spans strategic change management, leadership development, large scale transformation and inclusion and diversity to ultimately support the execution of strategy. Naomi is passionate about understanding the cultural context of an organisation, employee engagement, building leaders’ potential and the role inclusion and diversity plays in this space.