Nursing home staff member: 'We are living in a constant state of fear'

Daily life in our nursing homes has been tough for residents and staff, says TERESA O’DONOVAN, activity coordinator at Cramers Court nursing home in Belgooly.
Nursing home staff member: 'We are living in a constant state of fear'

Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the wellbeing and mental health of residents and staff living and working in nursing home settings.

ONE of the most significant consequences of the war on Covid-19 has been the impact it has had on the mental health of residents and staff living and working in nursing home settings.

The elderly are our most vulnerable group in society, but what of the staff who are trying so very hard to protect them? Where is the availability of emotional and physical supports for us? What coping strategies do we use to deal with trauma that is beyond the normal experience? For that, we have to look to each other.

As staff, we talk about it all the time — in fact, we talk of nothing else.

Because I work in a nursing home, I have cut myself and my family off from the real world. I chastised my husband the other week for chatting too long to the delivery guy in case he had Covid. It’s all I seem to think and talk about these days, because we are saddled with the responsibility of protecting our own families and yours.

In nursing homes, little falls or trips can often lead to short hospital stays, so you can imagine the extra layer of stress when you throw in visiting restrictions and Covid.

Staff are now the new ‘family’.

To date, all our residents are safe and Covid free, due to a combination of luck and due diligence, but we dare not breathe easy as this could change in seconds.

The weekly swabbing is a tense occasion until all the results are in, and even then it’s a short-lived euphoria as the countdown begins to the next swabbing.

Truth be told, we are living in a constant state of fear, and every day the media brings more horror.

Teresa O'Donovan of Cramers Court nursing home, Belgooly.
Teresa O'Donovan of Cramers Court nursing home, Belgooly.

I regularly change the TV channel in the day room when the news comes on, I don’t want our residents keeping a daily toll on the death count.

I feel like Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan except I have 70 Private Ryans to save!

Nursing home residents complied with everything that was asked of them. They stayed in their rooms, had no family visits, some even had to forgo family funerals, but this situation is being prolonged by all those who decided that it is necessary to go on holiday to sunny Spain to down endless glasses of Sangria in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. Can they not just drink at home, like the rest of us?

Every day, I promise residents that we are getting closer to normality, I keep setting goals and then find myself cheating by moving the goal posts.

When all this is this over, I tell them, “we will get out on the best day trip ever”. I have to keep hope alive, at the moment it’s all we have.

On my drive home from work each day, I often pass a group of people who have started a walking club during level 5, as you do! They come from at least four different households, and there they are again, shoulder to shoulder, and not a mask in sight.

It seems there is a proportion of the population who are hell-bent on disrupting our recovery from Covid-19.

Everybody talks about the risk factors of anxiety and depression for residents who are required to limit their movements. But it’s important to balance this by using personality typing to give a clear view of the overall mental health of residents.

For the less social butterflies, Covid has been a godsend. This relates to residents who don’t like or want to sit next to strangers in a common room, don’t like other people’s unusual habits and who are not fans of noise in general. One resident told me he now prefers to say the rosary in his room, just the two of us now, he said. He can’t stand when people fail to pray at the same speed as himself.

Another said it’s the first time she’s got to the read the morning paper in peace without interruption from other residents, and she added that she also can’t stand dinning with people who watch her eat, she wishes to continue to dine in her room.

We are learning more about our resident, and prolonged one to one time is allowing them to tell us information they previously omitted.

The point to get across here, is that the vaccine is not a magic cloak and we cannot stop using any of the safeguards that we have put in place. 

Time will tell if this long awaited golden child possesses the stopping power to make this pandemic turn and run with its tail between its legs.

Queue jumping concerns with regard to the vaccine have been widely documented in the media. There surely must be no colder slap in the face to health care workers than to have non-essential people receive a vaccination.

We work very hard to keep open communication and full transparency between families and residents.

When the necessary walls of level 5 went up, and we found ourselves cut off from communities again, I feared a detachment could set in and our image could regress. Nursing homes of the past were secretive places, where visitors were not encouraged, but that has all changed.

When family visitation is restricted, the residents can sometimes feel a loss of control on the situation, which can be very frightening for them.

It is not uncommon to leave the room of a resident on palliative care to take a phone call in which you find yourself being at the receiving end of that frustration.

After that, you can go home exhausted and start with school homework.

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