Enhanced visiting scheme reunites 600 loved ones with care home residents

Jemma Crew, PA Social Affairs Correspondent
·5-min read

An enhanced visiting scheme has reunited more than 600 relatives and close friends with care home residents since it started more than half a year ago.

Sunrise Senior Living UK and Gracewell Healthcare care groups identified residents who were deteriorating and invited relatives to become part of their care plan, developing a “Safe Visits” protocol to enable meaningful contact during the pandemic.

It has led to more than 400 enhanced visiting plans agreed with staff, residents and relatives since starting in August, reuniting more than 600 loved ones with residents.

Selected visitors are tested, trained in using personal protective equipment (PPE), and must agree to a contract setting out what the care home expects of them.

They help provide close contact care and support for residents showing signs of significant cognitive decline, weight loss, decreased mobility or distressed behaviour and mood disturbance.

The scheme predates Government guidance that said care home residents could receive regular indoor visits from a loved one, including a caregiver in certain cases, from March 8.

The daughter of a resident with Alzheimer’s disease said she does not believe her mother would still be alive without the programme allowing them to visit.

Sharon Duncalf, 56, and two family members have been able to visit 91-year-old Olive Duffy at Gracewell of Church Crookham care home in Hampshire, on and off since September.

Mrs Duffy’s mental health had deteriorated during the pandemic, she was struggling to use the home’s visiting pods and her family were unable to plan visits as these could only take place if she was having a good day.

They agreed an enhanced visiting plan, which allows them to arrange visits on the day in Mrs Duffy’s room, which Mrs Duncalf said has made an “immeasurable” difference.

Recalling the period before the scheme, she told the PA news agency: “The deterioration in my mother’s wellbeing was dramatic. She lost a lot of weight, she was confused, she didn’t understand why we couldn’t come, and those bad days were happening more frequently, there were less windows of good days.

“I could then see the difference, the measurable difference, in all of those points from September onwards, absolutely.”

The enhanced visits were paused over Christmas and have since restarted, with Mrs Duncalf observing a further deterioration in her mother’s health and wellbeing.

Mrs Duncalf, from Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, continued: “It is an immense difference and every time it happens and we are shut out, there’s part of her that never comes back, that’s a fact.

“So for those less fortunate people that don’t have the choice, and also have a huge degree of inflexibility in the management of the care homes, I can’t describe how heartbreaking that must be, because I know how it was for us as a family over Christmas.”

She added: “If I look at what happened to my mum, if that had just been allowed to continue, then I strongly suspect she wouldn’t be here right now.”

Staff at Church Crookham said they witnessed the transformation of another resident after she was able to receive regular visits from her brother.

Joanne Lowe, who has Down’s syndrome, was admitted to the care home in January after a four-week stay in hospital where she contracted coronavirus and developed an ungradable pressure sore.

The 42-year-old was struggling to eat, drink, talk or engage with staff and, in the absence of any diagnosis, staff believed she was near to the end of her life.

They enabled her brother – the only person she trusted at the time – to visit and assist her at mealtimes each day, and within days she had started eating, drinking, and “building up a rapport” with staff.

She has since been diagnosed with early onset dementia.

David Lowe, 45, said he only agreed for his sister to be discharged to the home because he was able to agree a visiting plan, which has been “excellent”.

He said: “So that was really beneficial and (the staff) are very good – it has been really good for me and for Jo that I can go in, as I do, visit her and that has been really beneficial to her rehabilitation.”

Woman plays cards with mother
Sharon Duncalf said the visits have made an ‘immeasurable’ difference (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Mr Lowe, from east Hampshire, hopes his sister will be able to move to a home for people of a similar age with learning disabilities once her nursing needs have reduced.

He added: “Without the help of Gracewell it would have been extremely difficult, I don’t know quite what we would have done without that.”

General manager Racquel Merdegia said Ms Lowe “improved a lot” within weeks, which showed the importance of enabling families to help care for their loved ones.

She said: “I think the main thing here is the importance of the connection to the family, especially if that is the only way for us to get on track, and also to make sure that she would start eating and drinking.”

Anna Selby, the groups’ Covid-19 taskforce lead, said there has been an undeniable and “dramatic” improvement in residents’ happiness since introducing meaningful visits.

She said: “Care home visits are vital in ensuring residents remain connected to the outside world and they are crucial in lessening feelings of loneliness and isolation, which can be detrimental to residents’ mental and physical health.

“Visits can also drastically reduce distress amongst residents, particularly those living with dementia.”

She said the wellbeing of residents “needs to be at the top of the Government’s agenda going forward”, adding: “It is so important that appropriate measures are put in place so that meaningful visits can continue in all care homes, to ensure residents can live happy and fulfilling lives.”