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Staying connected

To combat this, Helen Wildbore, Director of the Relatives and Residents Association, has shared her top tips and methods for keeping people in touch.

In a time when we are all being told to stay at home, and to have no face-to-face contact with any person we don’t live with, people care providers support are at risk of loneliness.

Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives. This is the message echoing across the country as we come together to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Families find themselves suddenly separated, no longer able to visit relatives or friends receiving care, whether at home or in a care setting.

We know from the calls we are receiving to the Relatives & Residents Association Helpline the impact this is having on those receiving care and their families. We hear from callers struggling with this loss of contact, racked with worry about how their relative will cope without seeing them. Contact with family and friends is vital for everyone’s emotional and mental wellbeing, but especially so for those who are older, or affected by dementia or other conditions. These connections can help to avoid isolation, loneliness and depression.

How to stay in touch

Staying away doesn’t have to mean losing contact, and care providers have a key role to play in supporting the wellbeing of those they care for by helping them to stay in touch with relatives and friends. There are several ways to do this – with the most effective often being video or phone calls. Even where a person communicates non-verbally, or perhaps appears not to take in verbal communication, a phone call from a family member/friend, with their familiar voice, could still be beneficial.

However, there are other options. We teamed up with Dementia UK to bring together our ideas for care providers to help keep families in touch, and many can be useful for people who aren’t living with dementia too. Below are some of the simple steps you can take and the considerations you might need to think about.

Explaining the situation

  • Explain the situation to those you care for, and why relatives and friends are no longer able to visit.
  • For people with mental capacity issues, explain using simple and short sentences that you can repeat on a frequent basis if needed, rather than trying to explain things in detail.
  • Have these sentences written on notes throughout the home (the person’s own home or a care home), particularly in line of sight.
  • In a care setting, consider putting a notice inside a person’s bedroom door as a daily reminder.

Using technology

  • Discuss with the person you care for, and their relatives, how they can use technology to keep in touch.
  • Explore which forms of communication might be most suitable, bearing in mind any sight or hearing impairments or mental capacity issues. Think about using:

Video calling like FaceTime, WhatsApp, Messenger, Skype or Zoom. These can be great for one-to-one calls or for group calls with several members of the family for example.

Telephone – for some, landlines may be the preferred option.

Virtual assistants, like Alexa, which can be particularly useful for those in their own homes.

Emails to relatives, providing updates.

  • Support the person you care for, where necessary, to contact their relatives using their preferred technology. This might include helping them dial, set up or join a call, ensuring they can reconnect if their call gets disconnected, making sure they can see and/or hear the people they are speaking to, or putting an email together.
  • In a care home, think about setting regular times when relatives/friends can get in touch with residents. Setting a time that works for the person you care for and their relatives will help provide reassurance, can help with making sure people are supported to use the technology and can ensure that calls aren’t missed by either party.

Other ways to keep in contact

  • Support people – by providing paper, stamps and help if necessary – to write letters or send cards to relatives (as long as they don’t have coronavirus symptoms). This can help people to feel that they are keeping in touch, even if they aren’t comfortable using technology.
  • Where the person consents, send photos to relatives/friends to help them stay connected and up-to-date with how the person you care for is doing.
  • Be aware of milestone dates, like birthdays, wedding anniversaries, or anniversaries of deaths which may affect the people you care for, particularly without the physical support of their relatives. Sensitively and gently encourage them to contact their family on these dates, or ensure relatives are able to get in touch.
  • Make sure people have access to family photos, with people’s names written next to their picture if necessary.

Stay positive

  • Remind everyone, often, that this situation is not permanent, and to keep positive.
  • Plan a social event that everyone, including friends and family, can take part in when this is all over.

Your mental health

  • Be aware of your own and your colleagues’ mental wellbeing.
  • Support each other and seek support from external sources to help you through this challenging time.

Getting through

Care staff are working incredibly hard on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic under extremely difficult circumstances, despite some being short-staffed due to colleagues being ill or self-isolating. Providers are facing a daily dilemma of working to protect people’s physical health, whilst also trying to protect everyone’s mental wellbeing. Helping to maintain vital relationships is a key part of this and can help with creating an environment of reassurance and openness through this crisis.

Helen Wildbore is Director of the Relatives & Residents Association. Email: info@relres.org Twitter: @relresuk

Share what you are doing to keep those you care for in touch with families and friends – send your stories to info@relres.org or comment on this article below.

About Helen Wildbore

Helen WildboreHelen Wildbore has been Director of the Relatives & Residents Association since 2019, overseeing the organisation’s services, campaigns, projects and policy work. Helen has over 15 years’ experience of working in third sector and academic organisations on human rights and equality, including at the British Institute of Human Rights, and the LSE. Her expertise lies in using human rights law to improve care and health services.

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