Like housing associations up and down the country, we’ve been on a very steep learning curve since the lockdown was introduced on 23 March. We manage 35 extra care and sheltered schemes for older people right across our region from Newcastle down to Thirsk in North Yorkshire, with the core of our schemes in Teesside.
Colleagues have not only had to get to grips with the new ways of working within our schemes, but have also been juggling other things like home schooling, caring for loved ones, self-isolating, and other family members being furloughed or even losing their jobs. We’ve had to adapt quickly as an organisation too. We already had a workforce that was geared up to being able to work flexibly, from a variety of locations, but as it became clear that this could be a long-term way of working we’ve made sure we’ve looked out for the health and wellbeing of our colleagues as well as our customers.
We’re fortunate that we’ve had very low numbers of COVID-19 cases within our schemes, in single figures. There was an assumption in the early days that people would remain in hospital if they were diagnosed with the virus. However, we soon learned that they would be discharged from hospital back into our schemes and information was poor early on, following discharge. The very first customer in one of our schemes that was diagnosed while in hospital told us themselves that they’d had the virus, not the hospital, when they were discharged. It seemed that discharge teams did not always understand that a patient could be being released to a communal living scheme, such as sheltered housing or extra care housing. Furthermore, there was little understanding amongst hospital staff of the difference between this accommodation and the provision of residential care.
"It seemed that discharge teams did not always understand that a patient could be being released to a communal living scheme, such as sheltered housing or extra care housing."What was understood was that the patients were naturally eager to return to their homes, who wouldn’t want to do that? However, the issue was that all official communications from the government and other agencies seemed to be aimed at care homes, rather than sheltered or extra care housing schemes like ours, where customers still have a fair level of independence and live in their own private apartments within a scheme. Furthermore, some local authorities thought that extra care housing schemes were included in government guidelines and some didn’t, which led to some confusion, and led to our colleagues and carers not being automatically provided with access to PPE through them. We know that the government is now reviewing arrangements for sheltered housing and extra care housing, as set out in the latest guidance on care at home.
Despite the very low numbers of confirmed cases within our schemes, this understandably caused some anxiety among our scheme staff. To help assure them that we were taking all necessary precautions, we had to put our own risk assessments and processes in place very quickly to determine what PPE was needed where, and to make sure we could access supplies when needed. Our schemes were closed to all but essential visitors to help stop the spread of the virus and we also made sure we had procedures in place to manage the risks in schemes and have been able to put safe operating procedures in place.
Keeping in touch with residents
The thing that’s been key to all of this has been our relationship with our residents and their carers. The Thirteen colleagues based within our schemes always go that extra mile for their customers and really get to know each person and their individual needs. They’ve made sure that lines of communication have remained open throughout this difficult time. They’ve called our customers every day to make sure they’re well and to check if they have any symptoms, or are self-isolating or shielding; we’ve written out to them each time any of the government guidelines have changed so that they know what they can and can’t do in terms of the lockdown and easing of restrictions; we’ve put notices up within each scheme; our customer magazine went to every household to reinforce our key messages and also provide updates to services.
"The thing that’s been key to all of this has been our relationship with our residents and their carers."Some of our residents have struggled to access their GPs and some are afraid to access any health setting; for example, hospital outpatient appointments or elective surgery. So knowing that there’s still someone available to chat to with any specific personal health concerns, or generally cope with their situation, has been invaluable for them.
We’ve also seen an uptake in customers wanting to sign up to our assistive technology service. We’ve still provided a response service to any customers that already have personal alarms, so they’ve had the assurance that we will still respond in an emergency, and I think demand for this service will keep on growing as it’s a lifeline for many.
I think going forward, we would find it very useful to have more clarity around whether staff with underlying health conditions should remain at home, even if they have been tested positive and got over the virus.
"I hope that when we return to something approaching ‘normal’ that we will take of the learning from this global crisis and use it for the greater good"It would also be great to have local testing sites that were fixed, rather than being pop-ups so that we can tell customers this and give them that extra bit of reassurance.
I hope that when we return to something approaching ‘normal’ that we will take of the learning from this global crisis and use it for the greater good, with better lines of communication between local authorities and health professionals, better processes and systems that fully engage the housing sector, and more importantly, always put people first. That’s certainly our ethos at Thirteen.
Thirteen are a sponsor of the Housing LIN Future Leaders’ programme.
For more on information on Covid-19 and to access a selection of Housing LIN practice briefings for the sector, visit our online Coronavirus Info Hub.
And if you would like to talk through any of the issues raised in this guest blog and/or find out how the Housing LIN can assist you, email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org