Dying alone a Covid tragedy

‘A terrible outcome’

ELDERLY patients with just weeks to live only get to see family members in their final days because of heart-breaking COVID-19 restrictions.

Aged care facilities in Perth have been in lockdown for weeks with a strict no-visitors rule to shield residents from the pandemic.

When the Herald spoke to Fremantle aged care nurse Kate Pernaham, she had just finished her shift and was overwhelmed from seeing old people fading away on their own with no family.

“For some it takes months to die and we can only let families see them in their final few days,” she said. 

“It is very emotional for families who are unable to spend the last crucial months of their life with them.”

She noted it was especially hard for people with dementia as their condition can quickly change and they get upset and agitated, but can’t communicate what’s wrong.

“This is an extremely confusing time – they’re just waiting,” Ms Pernaham said.

“Even if they don’t know who [their family] is, they still know they’re visiting.

“It’ll be sad to see. I imagine the behaviour will get worse.”

Michelle Kirwan, whose father is in a dementia aged care unit in Perth, said she was worried about his behaviour since the lockdown.

Last week a nurse told Ms Kirwan her father had eaten almost a quarter of a foam ball. 

“We’re really worried but we can’t do anything,” she said. “We can’t go in to see him.” 

Before the lockdown, Ms Kirwan’s brother would visit every day to make sure their dad was exercising, but now their worried he is not being active enough.

Ms Pernaham says discussing treatment options and communicating with family members by phone has been difficult.

Aged care staff have used FaceTime to keep families in touch with their relatives with mixed results. Ms Kirwan says her father finds it confusing.

“When we FaceTime other people, he doesn’t know where to look. The concept of somebody being on the other end of the phone, he can’t focus. It’s very sad.”

Lana Glogowski, CEO of Palliative Care WA, says sometimes technology can make things worse.

“For older people who are not used to using phones in that way, that’s a bit strange for them and for many it increases their anxiety and sense of discomfort.”

She says patients in palliative care could die alone.

“With the current rules being laid down residents have the potential to die alone,” she said. 

She says they are working to get more clarity on the issue and avoid “a terrible outcome”.

by HAYLEY THAN-HTAY

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