By Lorna Hart-Thomson, Action on Rights

It has been two months since Alzheimer Scotland’s Action on Rights team, funded by Scottish Government, was set up to help families of anyone living in Scotland’s care homes access meaningful visits. Working within the team, I have witnessed first-hand just how complex and challenging it has been for families throughout Scotland to navigate the new ‘Open with Care’ guidance, particularly with the lack of definition around what a meaningful visit could or should look like.

The Action on Rights team are not only experiencing a variation of the implementation and interpretation of the guidance but also on the definition of ‘meaningful.’ Many care homes have yet to truly implement meaningful visits, which we know comes from anxieties in the potential risks they feel their residents may be exposed to. However, with a vaccination roll-out across care homes, we must be doing all we can to allow families and friends in to see their loved ones. On a more positive note, in our team we have heard some heart-warming stories of how true meaningful contact has been resumed, and how families have enjoyed their reunion with each other.

Shared by Beechwood Care Home in North Lanarkshire

A family was really keen for their mum, who is resident in a care home, to see her beloved dog. Due to restrictions, pets were only allowed to visit outdoors, and for this particular visit, it was a window visit. The staff and family observed the lack of meaningful connection, and arranged a visit within the courtyard outdoors, but with shelter so the lady would be comfortable. 

The family attended along with a new grandchild and of course, the adored little dog. The family were able to share a beautiful moment with their mum & gran, and they also had the opportunity to take photos to share with other family members. Everyone shared the joyous meaningful visit, and this is something the care home is working on enhancing, as well as indoor visits. The lady and her dog also shared some much-needed hugs.

Shared by a husband

This experience came via our Carer Liaison Team in Dumfries & Galloway:  a husband had been visiting his wife, and telling her all his news, which included a walk where he had seen little spring lambs. This walk is somewhere the couple had been together, and the reminiscence took his wife right back to that time, and she could engage fully in conversation about the lambs, their appearance and behaviour etc. This was such a positive experience for them both and, as much as they couldn’t physically go together, the emotion and meaning behind sharing such an experience was powerful.

Shared by a daughter

“We were using video calls to keep connected to our mum. She doesn’t always look at the screen, and sometimes she even appears to be asleep, but there is something about just being able to see her in her surroundings which helps us all to see she is ok.

We sing and play music to her, and she does hear us and responds to our voices.  We also often have my siblings and their children on the call, and we chat between ourselves but even then, I feel that this is beneficial for mum. She is hearing the familiar voices of her family around her, and hopefully this helps her to stay connected to who she is.

Another thing I do on visits is talk to her about her family - her parents, her sibling and tell her stories that she previously told to me about the things they all did when they were children. I also describe her favourite places, such as sitting in the garden or going to the beach. She seems to like this and responds well, sometimes asking me to tell the stories again.”

Meaningful contact can be interpreted in different ways, as these stories demonstrate. The Action on Rights team know that for every family who are desperate to resume regular face-to-face visits, there’s another family who are incredibly anxious about the risks. What is essential, however, is that the care homes are using the current guidance to provide a variety of options which best suit the needs of the resident and their families and friends.

Below outlines some of the experiences that families are telling us – experiences which simply could not be classed as meaningful contact:

  • Staff chapping at the door as soon as the clock strikes 30 mins
  • Screens in place with a 2-metre distance rule
  • Window visits but with the windows closed, and the resident at the other side of that window asleep
  • Visits in busy dining rooms, with staff on nearby tables making sure the infection prevention and control measures are being adhered to
  • An indoor visit only once every two weeks
  • A garden visit when the weather is cold and wet
  • When someone has advanced dementia and the only way they communicate is through touch – but yet having to be 2-metres apart

There’s progress, but there’s also still a long way to go. The Action on Rights team is here for the families of anyone living in Scotland’s care homes, this is not a dementia specific service. We are available Monday-Friday from 8am-6pm, and you can contact us by emailing: [email protected] ​or calling the 24 hour Freephone Dementia Helpline on 0808 808 3000. The Helpline volunteer who answers your call will take your contact details and pass these directly to the Action on Rights team.  Should your call come outwith these times, our Helpline volunteers will provide you with information and emotional support before passing your details on to the team ​to be followed up at the earliest opportunity.