How to support loved ones in hospital during the coronavirus pandemic

To help stop the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the majority of hospitals have stopped or severely restricted visits. We explain how you can still help a loved one even when you can't see them face to face.

During the coronavirus crisis, most hospitals and care homes in the UK have stopped visits. If you have a loved one in a healthcare setting, not being able to go to see them will be incredibly difficult. But these temporary measures have not been taken lightly. Restricting visits to hospitals and care homes is important to reduce the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 as much as possible. This way hospital and care home residents, and healthcare staff, can be better protected during the pandemic.

Hospitals have discretion to set their own visiting policies, so different hospitals will have different rules. Speak to a ward manager first about visiting arrangements, or check the hospital website for guidance.

It's worth noting that the rules for visiting and receiving information about a patient varies by hospital and by individual. There are cases in which family members or relatives have not been allowed information or to speak to their loved one. If you find yourself in this situation, get in touch with the Patient Advice and Liason Service (PALS).

Stay away if you have COVID-19 symptoms

Even if you can't visit, there are still many other ways to support a loved one who's in hospital at the moment.

It should go without saying that if you have coronavirus symptoms such as a persistent cough, high temperature or loss of sense of smell or taste, you shouldn't visit anyone in hospital and must book a coronavirus swab test and self-isolate at home with your household until you have the results. If your results are positive, you and your close contacts will be advised how long to self-isolate for. All four countries in the UK now have their own test and trace systems - if you've been in close contact with someone who tests positive, you'll be contacted and must self-isolate for 14 days from the last time you were in contact with them.

"You should not visit if you have any symptoms of coronavirus, or are self-isolating because of exposure to someone with symptoms," says Simon Hewett-Avison, director of services at Independent Age. "If you can, try to find alternative ways to stay in touch such as talking over the phone or video calls on a tablet. You may also want to ask if anyone can help your loved one use the device to speak to you."

Advice for carers

It's likely not all visits are completely banned. Special allowances may be made for birthing partners, parents of children, carers, and visiting loved ones at the end of life. Check with the hospital first. If you are allowed to visit, there may be certain precautions you need to take when you get there such as hygiene and social distancing measures.

"Although the guidance is predominantly that visitors are not allowed in most hospitals, there are circumstances in which they are permitted," says Dementia UK Admiral Nurse Emily Oliver. "A Carer Passport is a record which identifies a carer in some way and it can be used to facilitate this kind of access to a hospital."

She advises loved ones ask about specialist teams who may be able to help during this challenging period if you're not able to visit. For instance, Admiral Nurses provide specialist support for people with dementia. The hospital may also have carer leads or frailty teams to offer extra support to a vulnerable person.

For someone with dementia, their usual routine and preferences may be very important to their quality of life. These can get disrupted in hospital. Putting together a document of the person's likes/dislike, usual routine and life history, can help staff provide more personalised care. Dementia UK has created a template for putting this together.

How to stay in touch

Face-to-face contact may not be possible, but that doesn't mean you can't regularly communicate with your loved one. There are lots of options for getting in touch, from video calls to an old fashioned letter.

"Not being able to visit a loved one is likely to be distressing so finding different ways to stay in touch can help," says Age UK's director Caroline Abrahams. "There are more creative ideas like reading to someone over the phone or sending them a card or gift to let them know that you are thinking of them, or simply keeping in touch by phone or by video call. Even if your loved one can't communicate with you, they may find hearing your voice a comfort."

If you're planning on a phone call, it's a good idea to find out the best time to make a call to the ward, suggests Oliver.

"Hospital wards are very busy and therefore certain times may be harder to get an update or be able to speak to the person who is admitted. It may be that the afternoon is better to ring as the doctors may have completed their rounds and therefore nurses will be able to give you more information."

Many hospitals are now using virtual technology to bring people closer together at times when visitors are unable to visit. Check with the nursing teams if video calls are something that they are able to facilitate and if so, how to book a session.

Comfort items

Hospitals can be quite unsettling places at the best of times - and your loved one may be even more anxious at the moment if they're not able to see you. But most hospitals are currently exploring ways to let people drop off items for their relatives. Check the hospital website or ask the nursing teams if this is happening where your loved one is staying. Providing items that remind them of home can relieve some of the stress. Flowers are usually not permitted in hospitals though.

"It may be worth providing some comfort items that may help to reduce distress: these might include a blanket that is normally used at home, a photo album or a pillow," says Oliver.

Patient rights and consent

Even though you might not be able to advocate face to face for your loved one's care, you may find it reassuring to know that patients always have to give informed consent for treatment. Healthcare professionals have a duty of care to always let the person know what their care plan entails and ask for permission to perform certain procedures.

"Patients can always ask for information, to ensure they understand the treatment, and withhold or withdraw consent if they're not happy about their care at any time," says Patients Association CEO, Rachel Power.

Any treatment where consent has not been given is unlawful, except in cases where the patient lacks the mental capacity to make decisions about their care. Often the person will have appointed Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) so a loved one can make medical decisions on their behalf. But if LPA is not in place, their doctor will be able to go ahead with treatment, provided they believe it is in the person's best interest. However, healthcare professionals should still take reasonable steps to discuss the treatment with the person's relatives beforehand.

Hewett-Avison suggests asking the nurse or manager in charge of the ward about who is responsible for giving you updates about your loved one's care and treatment. You could contact the hospital’s Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) for advice and support with getting regular updates and ensuring you are consulted and involved at appropriate times.

"It might also help to request a copy of the hospital's discharge policy in advance, so you can see what steps they'll be taking before your loved one leaves hospital."

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