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BASW Blog: I haven't visited a care home since February

Member Michelle McDonald highlights the need for social workers to be tested and given safe access to vulnerable adults in their care

As a community-based Social Worker for Adult Social Care, I normally visit residential care homes on a regular basis. That changed in February this year when the fears around COVID-19 grew and the care homes voluntarily began to close their doors to “non-essential visitors”.

This included social workers – I have not been in a care home since. Assessments are now done via telephone and video calling, and it has not been without challenge. I am also working with clients I have never actually seen, which is probably as unnerving for them as it is for me.

I also have a family member with dementia and their needs reached a crisis point during the pandemic, requiring hospital admission and a long term move into residential care.

I know the challenges of finding a care home without being able to see inside and meet the staff face to face, and to not know when you will next be able to visit them. This personal experience makes me more determined than ever to advocate for my clients and their families, and to ensure care is of the highest quality.

Identifying care quality concerns is challenging when you cannot visit a care home yourself. Families are often the first people to raise concerns to their social worker about a loved one’s care following a visit. Likewise, social workers normally notice and address concerns as part of their routine visits.

Concerns can be about care not being personalised to their family member’s needs, to more serious safeguarding concerns that may risk a person’s health and wellbeing. Fortunately, wilful neglect is rare, and care workers work hard to provide compassionate and dignified care despite the challenges.

With COVID-19 resulting in more sickness absences and self-isolating as a precaution, care homes are inevitably going to be feeling the pressure, particularly as we edge into the notoriously difficult “winter pressures” time of year.

Face to face contact is currently limited for families, often in the form of visits through windows for a short amount of time.

Unfortunately other forms of contact such as telephone and video calling can be unreliable or unsuitable options, particularly for people with sensory or cognitive impairments, and for many they still require the time of a staff member to support with the call. Internet connectivity can also be an issue.

This affects personal contact for families and friends, and professional contact for assessments, reviews, and care provision, not just from social workers but for other professionals as well, such as podiatrists, hairdressers, and dentists.

For many these are the services that maintain people’s sense of identity and promote mental and emotional wellbeing, and they do consider them to be “essential”.

As social workers and as family and friends of the people living in care homes, we want nothing more than for people to stay healthy. We need to advocate for families to have face to face contact with the necessary resources to keep people safe, whether that is regular COVID testing, PPE and vaccines.

We also need access to these resources as social workers so we can provide tailored support to people living in care homes, their families, and the people providing their care.

Therefore, we need MPs and the public to understand the role of social workers more. We need their support for campaigns like ‘Test, Access, Rights’ from The British Association of Social Workers, which calls for social workers to be regularly tested for Covid-19 so we can safely get past blanket restrictions to see adults in our care and advocate for their rights.

We all know as people that life is about more than just staying alive. The fear that a relative may die in hospital or a residential care home for weeks or months, possibly even a year, without a hug or a squeeze of their hand is unthinkable, but this has already become reality for many.

Michelle McDonald, a BASW member (names and service user details may have been changed)