Trauma rife among aged-care residents, says researcher

By Amy Sarcevic
Monday, 21 September, 2020

Trauma rife among aged-care residents, says researcher

More than 70% of people within aged-care facilities have experienced a traumatic event in their lives and may need psychological intervention during COVID-19, says researcher Dr Monica Cations of Flinders University.

The high rate of trauma among aged-care users in part reflects their greater accumulation of traumatic life experiences. However, the aged-care experience can be distressing in and of itself, particularly during the pandemic, Dr Cations said. For those already living with trauma from a prior life event, these environmental pressures can cause flare-ups of psychological distress.

“Living in an institutionalised environment, with limited freedom and autonomy, and the risk for neglect (due to resourcing issues) creates a perfect storm of uneasiness for someone already living with trauma,” Dr Cations said.

“Being away from one’s home can be very difficult for trauma survivors. Many people cultivate their home as a safe place, which helps them manage their anxiety and avoid re-traumatisation. When that gets taken away and the individual is in a novel environment, where they don’t have as much control or predictability, mental health can be affected.”

Throughout the pandemic, aged-care residents have been exposed to high levels of risk, given their close proximity, reliance on shared environments and the general vulnerability of their immune systems. In some facilities, the risk has been elevated with PPE shortages and the absorption of COVID-19 patient overspills from hospitals.

As a result, quarantine has either been mandated or encouraged in some aged-care homes, meaning that many patients are managing the stress of this risk in solitude.

Given the elevated risk of the aged-care environment, staffing issues have also been rife throughout Australia. With workers stretched beyond usual capacity, the psychosocial needs of residents have taken a back seat in many facilities.

“It’s really been a challenging situation for all involved and I sympathise with staff who would like to do more but don’t have the capacity to do so,” Dr Cations said.

“Now more than ever, small things can make the world of difference to someone experiencing distress. For example, taking a few minutes to ask someone how they are coping, and getting educated on trauma and other common mental health conditions, so as to recognise early-warning signs.”

Dr Cations would also like to see more done at the federal level to support the mental health of aged-care residents. She acknowledges developments like dedicated mental health funding in the 2018 Federal Budget and the establishment of a support line for older citizens. However, she says mental health resources are not as available as they should be in aged-care facilities.

“As a nation, we need to stop undervaluing the wellbeing of aged-care residents,” she concluded.

Image credit: © Bence

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