For home care support worker Janice Millington, coronavirus presents a dual challenge.

On the one hand, she has to protect her elderly clients from infection.

On the other, she is trying to safeguard them from another big threat to seniors from the fallout from COVID-19 — social isolation.

As social distancing measures are ramped up across Australia, home care support workers are finding ways of complying while still providing crucial contact with the elderly.
“We don’t want people falling into depression and feeling isolated,” Mrs Millington said.

We just have to roll with it. That’s why we do the jobs that we do because we can thrive on a problem and fix it.”

Mrs Millington used to hug one of her clients, 91-year-old Margaret Aiston, but now the first thing she does when she arrives at Ms Aiston’s home in the Perth suburb of Como is wash her hands.

The usual routine of going out for a coffee is off limits.

Now, social activities are confined to a takeaway or a cup of tea at home.

Instead of going shopping, groceries are delivered.

And to provide personal care to high-risk clients, Mrs Millington now wears protective equipment including a mask and gloves.

Coronavirus not the only killer

Like hundreds of other organisations providing care for the elderly, Perth-based not-for-profit Southcare is faced with a difficult challenge responding to the pandemic.

It has been forced to close its social centre where group activities were offered for seniors, providing one-on-one social support instead.

“We know that COVID-19 is killing people,” Southcare chief executive Nicky Howe said.

“But so can social isolation and unfortunately that’s a silent killer.

“If you sat and watched the news all day, your level of anxiety would increase.

“Without someone to talk to, to air your fears, it can be quite damaging to you mentally.”

Call goes out for workers

Even before coronavirus came along, Dr Howe was on the lookout for staff.

The former enrolled nurse has been known to hand out her business card to anyone who delivers exceptional customer service.

Now while other industries are shedding workers because of the pandemic, the aged care sector, including community care, is ramping up recruitment.

“The tragedy of what is happening also creates an opportunity for us,” Dr Howe said.

“Because people who are in the hospitality or tourism sector have got a lot of skills that we are looking for in aged care.

“They’re used to looking after people, they’re used to dealing with customers, they’re used to being trained, they’re used to doing shift work.

“They’re in the people industry. That’s what we are in.

“So, if people out there find themselves unemployed are thinking ‘what will I do’, I would really encourage them to start to contact some of the aged care providers.”

Volunteers remain crucial

According to the employment site SEEK, the highest growth in job advertisements over the past year has been in community services and development, which includes community care.

The number of advertisements increased by 18.7 per cent in that time.

But even with a boost to the workforce, the effort of caring for the elderly through the coronavirus crisis is likely to be heavily dependent on volunteers.

Southcare offered its team of volunteers the chance to stand down during the crisis, but the majority declined, offering to continue helping in whatever way they could.

Among them is Julie Ham, a Perth retiree who drives the elderly to social activities and medical appointments.

“We can’t lock ourselves completely away,” she said.

“We are going to need to go out and see some of these people.

“We just have to work around ways that we can do that in a responsible manner.”

Hitting the phones to help

Other community efforts are focussing on providing connections to the elderly from a distance.

Jo Fokatis is one of 1,200 volunteers who signed up to a call to arms by her local MP, the member for Perth, John Carey.

She has made 200 phone calls to seniors in the area over the past fortnight.

“The good thing is that most people have already got family and friends that have rallied to help them so that’s really great to hear,” she said.

“But we’re also now linking people into local support groups that are able to assist them.

“Just the thought that people are out there, strangers are caring about them enough to check in, it really impacts on people … I had a gentleman yesterday who got quite teary on the phone.”

Pictured here is home care support worker Janice Millington with customer Margaret in Como.

This story first appeared on ABC Online and was written by ABC journalist Claire Moodie.

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