Keeping frail older people safe from Coronavirus may come with risks and unintended consequences. 

Video conferencing has become all the rage as we we realise social distancing doesn’t mean giving up on social contact. Virtual, drinks, lunch, dinners and parties are everywhere to be seen. But what about the impact to social distancing for older people?

Today Tony Pagone, the Chair of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, called on Australians, including the Australian Government and aged care providers, to be vigilant about the many and varied impacts of coronavirus on older people – particularly those in residential care. 

The Commission is concerned about unintended consequences flowing from the restrictions that have been imposed to protect the health of older people. Restrictions include severely limiting the number and length of family and other visitors who have been allowed to visit.

The measures are important but they also have the potential to harm frail older people. In addition to social support, family and other visitors often provide additional care including feeding and toileting. 

The Commission argues that steps should be put in place to address these issues . This includes providing more staff for basic services and supporting residents to link up with family and friends through telephone and video connections to maintain their social connections. Equipment, support and training need to be provided for this purpose.

There is a broader group at risk – older people who are isolated in the community. Nearly 10 per cent are isolated and nearly 20 per cent of older people say they are lonely. Their everyday social activity disappeared over the weekend. Now they have very little opportunity for social engagement with other people, particularly if they are frail or living with underlying health problems. 

Many have only limited experience with online technology. For those with good links to family and friends, the telephone is their lifeline. But is that enough?

Older people living in the community often depend on home care and support for meals, cleaning, home maintenance, personal care and nursing. These services are now vital for frail older people. But coronavirus will put them under pressure.

Family and friends and neighbourly arrangements will be important . But more will be required to make sure we don’t put isolated older people at risk. Effective local community information and coordination to identify and support isolated older people in the community needs to be in place. Inevitably that will mean more home and community care staff and these staff will need to be we’ll supported and trained.

These arrangements will have to be put in place quickly if we are to prevent unacceptable arrangements for older people.