By Cathy Withiel
Courage comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s the reassuring voice of a frontline worker, worried about her own family, as she tends to a client living alone at home. It’s in the tired eyes of an activity worker determined to notch up another laugh or two from residents before he finishes his shift.
And it is this collective courage that forms the beating heart of Uniting AgeWell as we hurtle along the pandemic rollercoaster ride, with all its highs and lows.
“Members of the broader community can sometimes see an organisation as a faceless entity,” explains Uniting AgeWell Chief Executive Officer Andrew Kinnersly, “but it’s made up of people, in our case over 2500 staff, who are all digging deep to rise up to the demands of doing the right thing during a once-in-a-lifetime event, when there are so many things beyond our control.”
He’s not exaggerating. Wind back the clock to February this year. Much of Victoria had just come out of gruelling heatwaves, shocking air quality and horror bushfires. “We thought we’d never see anything this bad ever again,” Andrew says. Then COVID-19 hit.
Since then, there have been more twists and turns than on a rollercoaster ride. Across Tasmania and Victoria, there have been a series of lockdowns, flip-flopping between stages two, three and the current Stage Four restrictions, each with their own sets of rules around isolation, visitors to our aged care facilities, and services to home-based clients.
And all this against a backdrop of unrelenting media coverage and political debate over the outbreaks in residential aged care and whether aged care providers are adequately prepared.
“Everything that has happened should have left us reeling, but instead it’s made us stronger,” Andrew says. “I am constantly amazed at our people’s ability to adapt and meet the challenges ahead.”
He cannot speak highly enough of the staff. “They’re amazing and wonderful! They love what they do, and it shows. Their kindness and compassion goes above and beyond. It must be soul destroying to come home from work and hear aged care completely smashed on the nightly news. But the next day they’re back at work again, providing love and support with a smile.”
How is Uniting AgeWell achieving this?
“By being true to our mission and placing people’s quality of life, safety and wellbeing at the centre of everything we do” Andrew says, “as well as reacting early, being innovative and adding flexibility to the mix. That’s what’s helped us get it right.”
In fact, many innovative strategies will remain in place when the pandemic is over.
So, how did it all unfold?
First up, Andrew says acting quickly and decisively in getting the right people to steer the unchartered course through the pandemic was paramount.
“Not long after the first cases were recorded in Australia, we formed a special COVID-19 Taskforce, and met daily, often seven days a week, to address the challenges as they presented,” Andrew explains.
“I’m proud of the work the entire Uniting AgeWell family has done, and how responding so early on in the pandemic meant we were well placed to protect our residents, clients and staff.”
Employees returning from overseas were asked to quarantine for two weeks, well before government directions, visits to aged care communities were restricted before this was mandated, and a 30 cubic metre mountain of Personal Protective Equipment was secured for distribution to all residential sites and home care staff.
The organisation’s pandemic plan was implemented with a raft of necessary safety and education protocols around donning and doffing PPE, cleaning, hygiene and social distancing.
Screening and monitoring of all staff and essential visitors was immediately implemented and residents screened daily for COVID-19 symptoms. Many on-site cafes were closed, dining rooms reconfigured and dining hours extended to facilitate social distancing.
Andrew is adamant that our investment in quality, safety and risk management in recent years has been extremely important.
“We have allocated resources to these areas during a period of financial distress in the sector – not because it was affordable, but because it was the right thing to do.”
Thankfully, all Uniting AgeWell residential care facilities have so far remained free of COVID-19, despite a small number of individual staff contracting the virus via community transmission. It’s testament to both the protocols in place and people understanding the important role they play in keeping each other safe.
And while it has been a marathon effort, Andrew says preparation has clearly paid off, reflected in the calm and efficient way the COVID-19 exposure risk has been handled. He’s in no doubt that “clear, frank and frequent communication with staff, residents, clients and families has been key”.
At first the challenges seemed daunting. Corporate staff needed technical support to work from home; aged care residents needed ways to keep in touch with family; and home-based clients also needed ways to connect with friends and relatives as well as access allied health and social support services with AgeWell Centres now closed.
The answer was technology. But, with limited stock and the clock ticking, the question was “how?”.
“We had always planned a rollout of laptops and smart phones, but it suddenly needed to happen within days,” Andrew says.
“We didn’t have enough stock, so we had to go on a massive buying spree. And then we had to get in more IT support to teach staff to become more computer-savvy to make the whole thing work.”
And it did! One hundred tablets and 50 smart phones were rolled out across 20 residential homes and for staff to use with clients across both Victoria and Tasmania. Next up, 500 tablets were made available to home care clients with the greatest need, with staff available to teach these clients how to use them.
Andrew says so many positives have emerged, with many practices to be continued into the future. Staff were upskilled and many residents reported feeling more connected with family and friends than ever before. It was also a way to connect with clients geographically spread across sparsely populated areas of Victoria and Tasmania.
Using Zoom across the board for telehealth is also proving popular, with usage jumping from one in 100 clients to one in 10 since the start of COVID-19.
Corporate staff have found, with technical support, they were able to work efficiently and effectively from home, which augers well with regard to more flexible working arrangements post COVID-19.
Special thanks must go to the Synod IT team for their efforts to firstly enable remote working for all corporate staff, and secondly to assist in providing connectivity between residents, clients and families.
“They have been wonderful!” Andrew says.
Technology can only go so far, and staff got creative in finding other ways to keep aged care residents happy and in touch with their families.
“There was no magic solution here,” Andrew says, “but we are an organisation that has bucket loads of kindness and respect, and over the past months there have been so many examples of our staff going above and beyond. I feel for our residents, it is at times like this they need a hug from family most. But I know that our staff do their best to compensate for this.”
He’s not wrong.
Lifestyle staff have created decorative love windows, where residents chat to family on the other side of the glass via mobile phones or boom speakers.
Then there are human greeting cards, where staff take photos of residents posed with cards saying “hello, I’m fine” which are being posted to social media and emailed to families to reassure them.
Staff at all residential facilities are sending families regular newsletters, crammed with photos of how residents are keeping busy and happy. They also email and phone families at least weekly to keep them in the loop.
And residents are keeping happy, and feeling like they’re making a positive contribution to society, too. They recently raised money for the Cancer Council of Australia through a number of Daffodil Day morning teas and events, and they’ve been sewing masks for Stitch in Time, part of the Uniting Church’s national call for volunteers to make reusable fabric face masks for the most vulnerable in our community.
Then there’s the side to aged care that the media doesn’t always seem to see – the bucket-load of kindness and respect that underpins everything.
Staff often dress up in weird wigs and fun outfits and play the silly goat, simply to inject an extra layer of fun into the day.
And now that they find themselves looking rather confronting dressed from head to toe in PPE, some are using humour and kindness to deflect the situation.
Luckily there are some clients who are comforted by the sight of carers in full PPE.
One of them is Beryl, who says “they’re dressed from head to toe in plastic to protect me, but I’d recognise them anywhere by the smile in their eyes and the kindness in their voices”.
One of the great learnings from the pandemic, Andrew says, is the ability to come up with new ways of doing things when the old way is simply no longer an option.
“And I am incredibly proud of how staff have done this when it comes to our home-based clients,” he says.
For starters, with some 80 per cent of clients living alone at home, about 800 welfare calls are made each week to check if they are OK, or if they need anything.
With AgeWell Centres closed in Victoria and only now starting to reopen in Tasmania, leisure activities and health services are being brought to clients’ lounge rooms instead in order to maintain wellness and wellbeing during “iso”.
Staff are delivering activity bags crammed with arts and crafts, word games, puzzles and more to clients’ homes. Some are taking creativity to new levels by recording their own musical CD and whodunnit plays for inclusion in the bags.
“And because the packs are individually tailored to each client’s needs, staff are getting to know them a lot better,” Andrew says.
He says being agile and flexible are key to AgeWell’s team of client advisors finding ways to adjust and increase home care services to help clients get through the pandemic.
The number of home care packages being taken up has increased significantly, with many clients choosing to receive grocery shopping, having pharmacy orders picked up or getting meals delivered.
One client used her home care package to buy a computer tablet, and is now Zooming with friends and family on a regular basis – as well as having her grocery shopping done for her.
Another has bought a mobility scooter to make it easier for him to get to and from his dialysis appointments, while a third has installed ramps and an electric bed in their unit to make life in isolation a whole lot easier.
Uniting AgeWell is also installing smart home alert systems for many clients to give them, and their families, greater peace of mind.
There have been many learnings from, and reflections on, the pandemic journey.
“From the outset, the Uniting AgeWell Board and Executive made the decision to invest heavily in our infection management and control protocols, in additional staff and training, and in technology to keep the people in our care safe and connected with family and friends,” Andrew says.
“But perhaps the most heart-warming affirmation and something we have all learned afresh, is how much Uniting AgeWell staff are appreciated.”
Residents, clients and their families and friends have sent hundreds of messages of thanks over the past six months.
Their heartfelt messages described staff as “selfless angels”, “champions” and “brave heroes”.
They were appreciated by staff – many of whom read them through smiles, laughter and tears.
Uniting AgeWell Director of Mission Rev Clare Brockett (above) says spiritual care is much needed at this time.
She says Uniting AgeWell chaplains are listening deeply and reaching out to connect with residents in a variety of ways. Elders are enabled to face their anxiety, loss, or distress and discover options for exploring meaning in their lives.
“Being ‘seen and heard’ invites residents to use spiritual resources which lead to transformation in their lives,” Clare says.
Providing reflective space, cards and fridge magnets of hope, phone calls and personal emails are just some of the ways chaplains are showing their care towards their colleagues – recognising the challenges they are all facing in workplaces, where concern about the spread of COVID-19 to vulnerable people is a daily lived reality.
“Chaplains and the wider Uniting AgeWell staff are living out the Synod’s Mission Principle, ‘respond in compassion to human need,’ in abundance!
Often with flexibility and creativity, sometimes with humour, and always deeply moved by the trust shown in them,” Clare says.
“The work of our chaplains is grounded in their faith, gives expression to the body of Christ, and provides holistic care. In acknowledging a variety of religious and spiritual beliefs, traditions, and practices, chaplains are recognising the sacredness of every person, the humanity of every person, and what it means to be in relationship, with self, with others, with the Sacred.
“In one-to-one conversations with residents, families, and staff, chaplains hear how people make meaning, find their purpose in the world, feel connected (or not), and find a sense of belonging. These are key concepts of spirituality in aged care.”
Clare says the pandemic has highlighted many issues about the place of older people in society, and the provision of aged care.
Our understanding of personhood has never been more important.
“Staff are seeing the impact of people feeling disconnected; from themselves, from families and friends, from the ways they make sense of life, from God or the Sacred. They sit with residents, face to face or via phone or zoom, acknowledging anxieties and the sense of loss and tedium caused by the restrictions,” she says.
At the same time many residents of aged care homes, and people supported by Uniting AgeWell home care services, are showing their resilience; accepting that being separated from family and friends is for their protection.
Many of them earlier in their lives, lived through hardship in families, saw economic struggle, and other long-term consequences of national and global crises.
Clare says staff across Uniting AgeWell are showing teamwork at its best.
The collective skills of staff are much needed, and the kindness and generosity being shown to each other make the days a little more manageable.
Uniting AgeWell CEO Andrew Kinnersly says the Aged Care sector should have pushed harder for a more consistent national response to mitigate risk in aged care.
“I was personally disappointed that the national debate during April/May was about aged care visitation, when it clearly should have been about infection control and preparedness across all facilities,” he said.
“That said, I am thankful for Uniting AgeWell’s decision to implement risk reduction strategies well in advance of Government directives.”
However, Andrew sounds a note of caution.
“It is very important to understand that whilst our processes and protocols have helped protect residents, clients and staff to this point, we are only part way through what is shaping up as an ultramarathon.
“Whilst there is any level of COVID-19 community transmission, there remains a high level of outbreak risk to all aged care facilities, and as such we all need to remain hyper-vigilant.
“Our hearts go out to residents, families, and staff from the organisations that have experienced significant outbreaks – it is a highly contagious and wicked virus.
“We have taken an uncompromising approach to resident and client health, safety and wellbeing and have invested well over and above the funding allocation received from Government to ensure this outcome.
“I am also very grateful to the Uniting AgeWell Board for their support of this approach and also for not deferring core business initiatives necessary to meet future needs, such as the expansion of services and building projects.”
This article originally appeared in the October edition of Crosslight. To read the full magazine, click here.