COVID-19 restrictions easing for NSW aged care residents, but an expert says many won't be able to use new freedoms
After suffering through nearly 12 weeks of another strict set of COVID-19 lockdown orders, aged care residents in NSW can now leave their facilities.
The pandemic has disproportionately impacted the aged care sector and the Delta outbreak has been no exception.
Since last January, 315 of the 2,308 Australian COVID-19 cases in aged care services have been in NSW and these facilities are often among the first to be subjected to tighter restrictions.
NSW Health updated its advice to aged care homes on Monday, allowing their residents to go outside and in some cases receive visitors.
Residents can now go for walks if they remain within 1 kilometre of their facility.
They must, however, pass a risk assessment and they cannot interact with other people.
They are also required to wear a face mask unless they have a medical exemption.
And aged care residents in parts of regional NSW — those not still under stay-at-home orders — will be able to welcome two visitors a day.
The health advice does not require these visitors to be vaccinated.
Lee-Fay Low, an expert in aged care and dementia at the University of Sydney, said facilities in locked-down areas would be apprehensive about allowing their residents to leave their homes in the midst of an ongoing outbreak.
"There might be a very few residents, maybe younger ones, [but] if someone is cognitively impaired, the facility is not going to take them out for a walk the way they would've previously," Professor Low said.
Professor Low said the facilities that could allow visits should take extra precautions, including making masks mandatory, making sure everyone was vaccinated and having the visits outside.
She said the visitor ban had been particularly hard on residents with dementia who relied on familiar faces to hold on to their memories and identities.
She is advocating for a singles bubble for aged care residents, so they can have one family member who is fully vaccinated regularly visit them.
Richard Smith's wife of 52 years, Nanette, moved into Chiswick Manor Care Community home in Sydney's inner west last year after a dementia diagnosis.
Mr Smith, 79, still visits his 81-year-old wife each night, provided the facility is not in lockdown, as he is recognised as an essential carer.
He described being able to see her as "extremely important" to her overall wellbeing, and said he supported a visitor bubble.
"My [three] daughters haven't been able to see their mother for several months," he said.
"They're protecting [residents] from COVID, but there's a greater risk of them dying from loneliness and depression.
"This is my worry — that at the end of their life, they can say, 'We protected them from COVID,' but their family hasn't been able to spend their last years with them."
The Older Person's Advocacy Network, an advocacy group for aged care residents, said aged care residents had been under the harshest restrictions during the pandemic.
"We know how much it will mean to [them] to be able to leave for exercise, a crucial part of maintaining their health and wellbeing," chief executive Craig Gear said.
"We should be doing everything we can to support older people getting back to doing what they love, with the people they love, as soon as they can do so safely."