From drive-throughs to visitor pods, garden and window visits to cuddle curtains, CHP looks at the innovative ways care home providers have been going about bringing care residents and relatives back together during lockdown.
Since the UK went into lockdown in mid-March, care home providers have had to come up with innovative ways of supporting residents and families who have been in desperate need of seeing each other.
With the UK government finally having published its guidelines on care home visits on 22 July, we look at what providers have already been doing to safely bring residents back together with their families.
Surrey operator CHD Living, revealed its overhaul of health and safety policies for residents and staff in July following its introduction of garden and window visits.
The operator, which runs 13 care homes, as well as two specialist rehabilitation centres and a domiciliary care business, said it had felt compelled to balance the risk of social isolation against the low risk of coronavirus infection due to its high level of infection control policies and processes.
Through liaising with Public Health England and the CQC for advice, the company enabled families to reunite safely after months of restricted access.
Outdoor visitor sessions are now being held regularly across the week at all the provider’s homes with up to two visitors per resident permitted each time.
Visitors are required to undergo a temperature check and to sanitise their hands upon arrival, and masks must be worn throughout the socially distanced visits, which are taking place in the gardens of homes where possible.
Ground floor, bed-bound residents are supported to reunite with family members through windows, while residents who are cared for on higher floors are enabled to have bedside visits in line with an individual risk assessment using the principles set out in the government’s guidance – as with end of life visits.
Residents at CHD Living’s Brownscombe Lodge home, where most bedrooms have direct access to outdoor terraces and can be accessed via a courtyard, are being allowed to host visitors in their room while maintaining safe social distancing and using screens for additional safety.
Shaleeza Hasham, Head of Hospitality and Communications at CHD Living, said: “The health and safety of our recipients of care, staff and visitors remains the utmost priority, however, as a family business that recognises the importance of staying connected with loved ones, we fully appreciate that this has been a difficult time for many – particularly our residents who have been unable to receive visits as a result of the pandemic.
“With this in mind, we wanted to reinstate visits as soon as feasibly possible, without of course putting anyone at risk whilst the virus is still very much active. We have been following government guidance and adapting our operations accordingly and on an ongoing basis since March to help control the spread of coronavirus, and we are confident that with our extensive experience and precautionary measures in place that we can safely welcome visitors once again.
“Whilst this is a welcome step forward, we will continue to review guidance and adapt our protocols where necessary, taking account of changes in the emerging picture around coronavirus and to ensure the safeguarding of all.”
RMBI Care Co, part of the Masonic Charitable Foundation, was among the first care home operators to install secure visitor pods to enable residents to meet with their families.
The specially created partitioned spaces have an airtight glass screen to ensure the safety of residents, their families and the home’s staff. Visitors enter and exit from outside the home to minimise the risk of infection. Residents access the pods from a different door inside the homes.
The pods have an intercom system to allow residents and their visitors to speak with each other easily.
Both sides of the pods are deep cleaned between each visit and most have been installed by the home’s facilities’ teams.
Mark LLoyd, Managing Director, RMBI Care Co, said: “Our teams have been working around the clock to find innovative ways to bring our residents safely back in contact with their loved ones. In normal times, our residents are able to have visitors whenever they like, so not being able to do that has been difficult for everyone.
“We hope that our new secure visiting rooms will make it a bit easier for our residents and their families during these challenging times. We’re also continuing to look at other ways to welcome visitors safely to our homes again, including making use of the outdoor spaces at many of our homes.”
Outdoor spaces such as gardens have been a godsend for care home residents and their families during the pandemic.
Family drive-throughs have also been a fun way to ease the pangs of separation for families during lockdown.
Lockdown’s prohibition of physical contact between family members has been one of the cruellest aspects of the COVID-19 outbreak and has been especially hurtful for the vulnerable elderly and those living with dementia in care homes.
Innovation has brought a solution even here, however, with care homes having introduced the pioneering ‘cuddle curtain’, which enables residents and family members to hug one another in a strictly controlled environment.
RMD Care was amongst the first to introduce the ground-breaking innovation, which has brought great joy and emotion to reunited families at its Westlands care home in Hampshire.
Weekly sessions are held in a tent at the home, which has remained COVID-free, where family and loved ones can meet and hug each for 15 minute slots.
Rigorous sanitisation procedures are carried out after each visit to ensure the home remains COVID-free.
Home manager Helen Brown said: “Because I closed down early in March, it was a tough decision to take so there has been no contact since the second week of March.
“We have quite a lot of dementia patients so they might not be aware of what is going on in the world. They may not be aware of when they had their last visit but I think they’re aware of when they last had their cuddle.
“It’s been absolutely fantastic. We’re going to continue with it because we don’t how long we have to lockdown.”
Private pay focused care home operator, Avery Healthcare, meanwhile, has been piloting various systems and protocols to enable indoor visits to its homes.
Innovations include a facial recognition and temperature check-in and check-out system as part of a contactless entry protocol, and a no-touch hand sanitiser.
Toughened glass screens that can be seen through but provide a transmission barrier are being installed at reception desks, garden rooms and other inside areas that can be accessed from the outdoors.
Further innovations include a finger print COVID-19 antibody blood test that can provide results within 20 minutes.
Leading care home operators Sunrise Senior Living UK and Gracewell Healthcare have also been trialling facial recognition software that screens people as they arrive at homes.
The technology identifies team members, reads their temperatures and triggers automated doors to allow entrance to the building if their readings are clear.
The care home operators have also successfully trialled a new online appointment booking system that can control visitor numbers. The use of QR codes has also been proposed and forms part of the trial.
Senior Development and Property Director, Phil Andrews, of Sunrise Senior Living UK and Gracewell Healthcare, told CHP the group was also looking to deploy voice activated services to operate doors and lifts and was hoping to introduce powered access doors where appropriate to minimise surface contact.
“We have already begun the process of repurposing space within our buildings to offer safe visitor spaces,” Phil said.
“We are extremely lucky, particularly in Sunrise buildings, to have in general far more space than our competitors, therefore, we are creating these areas for family and friends to meet their loved ones – without actually coming into the main home.
“Visitors will access via a separate external door into a space with a Perspex screen into a private space.”
Meanwhile, Phil said garden visits continued to be a great comfort to all and its drive-through visits have remained a big success.
Leading Scottish care home operator, Balhousie, has pioneered the installation of new technology to facilitate care home visits north of the border, where the government has been quicker to offer care home guidelines.
The operator introduced £7,000 thermal imaging cameras at its 25 care homes that trigger alerts when someone enters the building with COVID-19 symptoms.
Jill Kerr, Group Chief Executive Officer at Balhousie Care Group, said: “While continuing to follow advice from Scottish Care and the Scottish Government, we wanted to ensure we were taking every possible precautionary measure to do everything we can to protect our staff and residents and keep the virus out of our homes as much as we can. The Hikvision cameras are a highly effective way to monitor temperatures and we hope they will reassure our staff and residents that their health and wellbeing is our first priority.”
As care home operators go about slowly beginning to open up again to the wider community, providers remain acutely aware of the potential of increased risk to their residents.
Chair of the Independent Care Group, Mike Padgham, said: “We have to urge caution …. as all relaxation of lockdown restrictions carries with it a risk of reigniting the virus and contributing to a second wave of COVID-19.”
The ICG chair has said any resumption of visiting should be limited at first and carefully managed to limit the risks.
It’s a danger that will be constantly at the forefront of providers’ minds as they look to do all they can to support the mental and physical wellbeing of residents as they take their first steps on the long road back to normality.