Helping families keep in touch during COVID-19

March 26, 2020
Roger and Mary

As the country comes together to try and prevent the spread of COVID-19, steps are being taken to protect those most at risk, including older people in care.

This includes restricting visits to care homes which can have an impact on residents and families, particularly where people are affected by dementia. Finding other ways to keep in touch with relatives and friends in care becomes all the more important. Dementia UK and the Relatives & Residents Association have brought together our ideas for relatives/friends, and for care staff, to help maintain these vital relationships.

For relatives/friends of those receiving care

We know from the calls we receive to the Dementia UK Admiral Nurse Dementia Helpline and to the Relatives & Residents Association Helpline that this is a very difficult time for the relatives and friends of those receiving care. You want your relatives and friends to be safe and well cared for during this pandemic and to help prevent risk of infection to them and others, including care staff. Staying away doesn’t have to mean losing contact. Below are some tips on how you can keep in touch from afar:

  • Discuss with the care staff how you can use technology to keep in touch with your relative. Some technology may not be appropriate for all, for example, if the person is affected by dementia. Discuss with the care staff which form of communication might be most suitable for your relative, bearing in mind any sight or hearing impairments:
    • Video calling like FaceTime, WhatsApp, Messenger, Skype, Zoom etc
    • Telephone – for some, landlines may be more appropriate
    • Virtual assistants, like Alexa, can help people to stay in touch
  • Arrange with the home a regular time to get in touch with your relative
  • Even where your relative appears not to understand verbal communication, a phone call from you, with your familiar voice, could still be beneficial
  • If your relative is affected by dementia, create a life-story book to make a record of their background, interests, relationships etc to help the care team better understand and relate to them
  • Send small parcels by post with something of yours which will be familiar to your relative or with your smell, or send books, magazines, DVDs, items to help with a hobby etc.*
  • Order some favourite food or drink to be delivered to your relative at the home, like the treats you would normally take in for them which they might also be missing
  • Order some flowers to be sent to the home, with your personal message, to help brighten up the day of your relative (and the staff!)
  • Post some photographs, old and recent, to your relative to help them stay connected to you*
  • Send cards, letters or post cards with messages of support / updates on family news*
  • Alert care staff to upcoming milestone dates, like birthdays, wedding anniversaries, or anniversaries of deaths which may affect your relative. Ask care staff to ensure you are able to contact your relative on those dates
  • Call a helpline for emotional support and advice, like the Relatives & Residents Association or Dementia UK.

For care staff and homes

We know this is an exceptionally busy time for care staff, who are working incredibly hard to try and protect residents from the virus, and may be short-staffed due to colleagues being ill or self-isolating. As well as doing what you can to protect the physical health of those you care for, you will also be thinking about how you can help to protect their mental wellbeing and prevent loneliness at this challenging time. Below are a few simple steps you can take:

  • Explain the current situation to residents, and why relatives/friends are no longer able to visit
  • For people affected by dementia, explain using very simple and short sentences that are repeated on a frequent basis, rather than trying to explain things in detail
  • Having this message written on notes throughout the home may also help, particularly in line of sight
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  • Consider putting a notice inside the room door as a reminder, including family photos, names etc
  • Have regular times when relatives/friends can get in touch with residents
  • Provide relatives/friends with a mobile phone number that they can use to send a regular message to their loved ones
  • Even where a resident appears not to understand verbal communication, a phone call from a family member/friend, with their familiar voice, could still be beneficial
  • Run learning / familiarisation sessions with residents on using technology (like video calls) if they are unfamiliar or uncertain about using it
  • Support residents, where necessary, to contact their relatives using technology
  • Support residents (by providing notepaper, stamps and help if necessary) so that they can write letters or send cards to relatives*
  • Where the resident consents, send photos to relatives/friends to help them stay connected, particularly when taking part in activities, or with a written message from the resident
  • Support residents to avoid loneliness – if you have cancelled group activities and communal dining, aim to allocate specific times, a few times each day, for interactions with other residents and care staff
  • Be aware of milestone dates, like birthdays, wedding anniversaries, or anniversaries of deaths which may affect the resident, particularly without the physical support of their relatives. Sensitively, and gently, encourage residents to contact their family on these dates, or ensure relatives are able to get in contact
  • Email updates to relatives providing news on the home’s activities will help them to feel connected
  • Remind everyone, often, that this situation is not permanent, and to keep positive
  • Be aware of your own mental wellbeing, and get support from your colleagues, management and external sources to help you through this challenging time
  • Plan a social event in the care home when this is all over!

* Those with COVID-19 symptoms should use gloves to prepare these items or ask someone without symptoms to do this for them, to help prevent possible contamination

For anyone who has any questions about dementia at this time, please contact our Admiral Nurse Dementia Helpline on 0800 888 6678 and helpline@dementiauk.org. You can also turn to Dementia UK’s online support resource around COVID-19. It will be updated as the situation develops and contains advice from our Admiral Nurses and many other resources.

For anyone who has other questions about someone in or needing care, please contact the Relatives & Residents Association Helpline on 020 7359 8136 and info@relres.org. The Helpline is open from 9.30am – 1pm Monday to Friday.

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