Health & wellbeing
How can you visit your loved ones in care homes and still keep everyone safe?
Harriet Wright, Community Project Worker at Healthwatch, delves deeper into the subject and explains how you could become an essential care giver or key visitor.
Care home residents have been some of the hardest hit in terms of Covid restrictions. Limits on visiting resulting in increased isolation and loneliness for many. The good news is that care homes are now opening their doors to family and friends. Despite this, we know that for many, weekly 30-minute or one-hour visiting appointments to see their loved ones are all that’s on offer. This can often not feel like enough, particularly when connecting with others is so important for mental and physical wellbeing.
There is however a way that residents can see more of their loved ones - by nominating one of their visitors as an essential care giver or key visitor. This person can visit much more often, flexibly and for longer periods of time, and crucially can continue visiting even when other visitors are excluded because there are positive Covid cases in the care home.
We know from a recent survey carried out by Healthwatch Leeds this summer that there is low awareness of this role, with only 57% of care home residents’ family members saying that they knew about and understood the role. We want to shine a spotlight on how important the role can be for the wellbeing of people living in care homes as well as bust some myths about it.
The other important thing is that I can continue to visit indoors even if there’s an outbreak of Covid
Andrew’s wife Gay lives in a care home in Leeds and he is her essential care giver/ key visitor. We talked to him about his experience of the role.
Tell us about your wife?
We’ve been married for forty years now and she’s a delightful companion. We used to do lots of things together – country walks, travelling, art, music, culture, those sorts of things. She developed Parkinson’s disease about fifteen years ago, and about five years later, began to show early signs of dementia. She’s been in a care home for nearly five years, but she still knows who I am, and it’s quite obvious to me that we still have a very close relationship.
How was it for you both during lockdown?
When lockdown started, the worst thing was not knowing when or even whether I was ever going to see her again. The biggest challenge was with communication because Gay really can’t talk coherently. Video calls were more distressing than relieving - the first one I did, I watched her for half an hour lying on her bed crying. For Gay, she needed to feel that someone she knew and loved was there in person with her. She virtually stopped eating and drinking and was prone to increasing falls. It became apparent that life could not go on like that.
What do you do during a typical visit with your wifeasheressentialcaregiver/ keyvisitor?
Most of all, it’s about providing companionship and the comfort of being physically close. For the first few visits, we’d just sit next to each other, knowing that we were together. If the weather is good, we’ll go out for a walk and sometimes we might listen to music or watch TV. I take magazines and photographs to look at, reliving past experiences. Sometimes I help her with her food, but I am not expected to get involved with any personal care.
What safety precautions do you have to take?
I’m doing Covid testing regularly, in line with the care home staff. So that’s one PCR test a week that I do at the care home and two lateral flow tests which I can do at home. It’s all free, easily accessible and once you’ve done it few times, it just becomes part of your weekly routine. I wear PPE when I’m in her company which includes a mask that I’m allowed to take off if I’m having a cup of coffee or something like that. And of course, I have to wash my hands regularly. We largely confine ourselves to her room but if we go out for a walk, we keep our distance from other residents and staff.
What are the advantages for you of being an essential care giver/ key visitor?
I get to see her regularly and that is so important to me. The greatest advantage I have over standard visiting is that I can come and go, as and when I want, and I stay as long as I want. The other important thing is that I can continue to visit indoors even if there’s an outbreak of Covid, something I wouldn’t be able to do as a normal visitor.
And how do you think Gay has benefitted?
She’s just more at peace with life and gets comfort from being with me, from being able to hug and hold each other. I know that almost without exception, when I arrive, she calms down. If she’s upset, she sees me and goes, “Well that’s alright then”, and within minutes she’s calm. She’s also eating again and has regained the weight she lost. The other benefit to her was getting her outside and walking. She simply had not left the community that she lives in during the first lockdown. The first few trips out were so uplifting for her, just to feel the movement of air on her face and hearing outdoor sounds such as birdsong.
Why do you think there’s low take up of the role?
I don’t think a lot of care homes are promoting it, so people aren’t aware of it and therefore not asking for it. I certainly bump into other visitors going in and out of Gay’s home who don’t know about it.
What would your advice be to other people who have a friend or relative living in a care home?
Make contact with the care home manager and ask about the essential care giver role as every resident is entitled to one.
Thank you Andrew.
If you need any help and advice about it, contact Healthwatch Leeds on 0113 8 98 003 5 or email
Covid restrictions were introduced into care homes in March 2020 and it’s often been difficult to work out what’s allowed and what isn’t. Some of our assumptions about who can visit people in care homes aren’t quite right. Some common myths have formed about the restrictions – below we bust some myths and find the truth.
"I can only be an essential care giver/key visitor if my family member or friend needs me to give them personal care or if they have health problems"
Not true. ALL residents are entitled to nominate an essential care giver/visitor irrelevant of any health conditions. The term ‘essential care giver’ can be a bit confusing, but it definitely doesn’t mean that you have to provide any type of personal or practical care (although this may be agreed in discussion with the care home). The guidance is clear that an essential care giver/key visitor should simply be someone with a close personal relationship to the resident who can provide companionship, and all the enormous benefits that this brings.
"I don’t need to become an essential care giver/key visitor because the care home is already letting me visit regularly"
This may be true now, but the moment there are two or more cases of Covid in the care home, all regular indoor visits will be suspended. Essential care giver visits however are still allowed to continue during outbreaks unless you or your loved one test positive for Covid. As we move into winter and rates rise, outbreaks will become increasingly likely, and it can often take weeks or months before homes are allowed to reopen for normal visiting.
"To be an essential care giver/key visitor, I need to be able to visit several times a week"
False. You may be a really important person in the care home resident’s life even if circumstances mean that you can’t visit so often. The care home should consider the wishes, needs and circumstances of all residents individually, rather than make blanket rules.
"I’m worried it won’t be safe for me to have more contact with my loved one".
Because more frequent and flexible visiting with closer contact may increase risks slightly, you will be asked to have more testing than a regular visitor. This includes having a weekly PCR test (the most reliable type of test for detecting Covid), as well as twice weekly lateral flow tests. You will also be asked to wear PPE and follow the same hygiene procedures as staff. These extra precautions should mitigate any extra risks. There are also things that you can do outside of the care home to help, such as getting the vaccine and being sensible about who and how you have contact with other people. If you don’t have the infection yourself, you are not a risk to your loved one
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