Older Australians in residential aged care are at risk of life-threatening falls and other serious health impacts after months of COVID-19 confinement and loss of mobility, according to the Australian Physiotherapy Association’s (APA) submission to the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality Investigation into the Impact of COVID-19 on Aged Care.

Physiotherapists have reported an increase of up to 30 per cent in the number of falls leading to hospitalisation, as well as increased occurrence of pressure sores.  

The APA’s submission included case studies in which residents’ movements and quality of life were significantly restricted, including:

  • eating meals in their rooms which removed important incremental exercise and social opportunities (walking to the dining room three times a day)
  • not being able to leave their rooms at all
  • being denied access to other areas of the facilities normally available to them
  • cancellation of group exercise classes
  • quarantined in rooms after returning from external medical appointments and hospital visits
  • regular health treatments, such as physiotherapy, denied during quarantine periods
  • receiving less one-on-one support from care staff who were diverted to infection control
  • loss of visitations from family and friends due to facility lockdowns.

APA National President Phil Calvert said, “While obviously important, increased infection control measures and cleaning regimes have led to an acceleration in the physical, mental and emotional decline of many residents. There needs to be equal priority given to the primary healthcare needs of these residents to ensure they maintain a level of independence.”

Mobility is key to quality of life and independence in older people. Balance and strength, developed through exercise, reduces both the number of falls and their severity in older Australians.  

In residential aged care facilities, 50 per cent of residents need the support of another person to be mobile and a further 35 per cent are not mobile at all.

“Sadly, the removal of normal activities over a period of several months has had a significant impact on the physical and mental health of older Australians. We are already seeing increased pressure sores and falls,” Mr Calvert said.

The APA proposed measures to address the situation including the introduction of additional temporary exercise programs or loosening existing funding provisions to enable greater flexibility of treatment by the limited number of healthcare workers able to access the facilities.

In its submission to the Royal Commission, the APA also reported that many older people living at home neglected much-needed treatment due to fear of infection and ambiguous messaging about essential versus non-essential health treatments. It also noted that the introduction of telehealth was beneficial and urged the government to maintain funding for it, along with digital literacy education for older Australians.

The full APA submission can be found here.


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