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The role of councils and better connecting families affected by dementia

Here's why Alzheimer's Society is calling on councils to better connect families with loved ones who are living in care homes during coronavirus (COVID-19).

Alzheimer’s Society has heard from supporters like John, Tony and many others calling for friend and family carers to be seen as equal partners in their loved one’s care.

The vital role meaningful visits play on the health and well-being of their loved ones must not be ignored. 

The impact of COVID-19 on people affected by dementia 

We know that people living with dementia have been hardest hit by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The damage, however, extends beyond the impact of the virus itself. It is the loss of social and family contact that is being felt most by people affected by dementia, particularly those living in care homes.

As we continue to respond to the pandemic, risk of infection should only be one part of the conversation care homes are having with family and friend carers.  

Family and friend carers are often more sensitive to changes in mood and well-being of someone living with dementia and are often the first to spot when something isn’t right.

This can be important in ensuring quick action is taken to prevent a more rapid decline in health. 

We know that infection control is of paramount importance, but meaningful contact with loved ones helps people living with dementia to feel secure and improve anxiety and mood. It also helps them to maintain basic cognition and communication skills; vital to living as independently as they can.

Blanket visiting restrictions are having a devastating impact on people living with dementia. It doesn’t have to be this way. 

Why councils matter

Councils are the lynchpin to better connecting families with their loved ones in care homes. They are best placed to work with care homes and local residents in finding an approach that meets the needs of individuals. They also have the right powers.

Public health is both a central and local government responsibility and, as we have seen over the past few months, a critical part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Local public health teams have a duty to respond to the health and well-being needs of their local residents, including people living in care homes. They work with elected members, known as councillors, on how to appropriately meet those needs.

Local public health teams must be working with care homes to identify all risks surrounding visits to care homes, including the risk that limited to no social contact may be having on a resident’s health and well-being.  

New guidance from central government sets out steps that councils can take, working in partnership with care homes in their area, to enable visits in a safe and meaningful way.

The new central government guidance recognises factors including:

the benefits to a person’s well-being by having a particular visitor or visitors 

the extent of the harm that will be experienced by the resident from a lack of visitors 

the provisions and needs outlined in the person’s care plan 

the importance of family and friend carers as equal partners in delivering care

What Alzheimer’s Society is calling for

We cannot accept a blanket approach to care home visits. This is not working for people affected by dementia and, in many cases, is contributing to deterioration in their symptoms.

Care home visiting policies must value social contact as essential to a resident’s health and well-being and find ways to support and enable family visits that work for every individual in their care.

We need councils to recognise the vital role that loved ones play in making visits work, alongside infection control, to prevent further devastation for people with dementia.

They must work in partnership with care homes and residents to make this happen. Elected members with a responsibly for adult social care, also known as lead or cabinet members, must listen to what people affected by dementia are telling them and lead the way in supporting the council to better connect families with loved ones in care homes.  

Making a public commitment to do so is an important step in creating trust and sends the right message to care homes and families alike.