A national telehealth counselling program is proving to be effective in supporting aged care residents and staff during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Swinburne Wellbeing Clinic for Older Adults launched a free telehealth counselling and support service program to provide emotional support to aged care residents, families and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The service, which launched in March 2020, builds on the clinics existing face-to-face counselling services for aged care residents in Melbourne.

The telehealth service involves postgraduate psychology, social work and counselling students from across Australia providing phone or video-based counselling and support as part of their clinical placements and under the supervision of experienced practitioners.

Mark Silver

Swinburne Wellbeing Clinic for Older Adults co-coordinator Mark Silver said it is successfully supporting residents with anxiety, depression and loneliness during the pandemic.

“The biggest finding is it can be done and that’s the biggest thing because people feel that 90-year-old people hate technology and don’t understand it. Yet, once it’s demystified for them, it can be done,” Mr Silver told Australian Ageing Agenda.

Mr Silver, who will provide an overview of the service at the AAG conference in November, said the program works closely with residents’ families and staff members.

“We involve them together because they are the cornerstone of the work. They have to continue on after we have finished. We only see people once a week and they can continue that work during the week,” Mr Silver said.

The telehealth counselling service works best when aged care staff go out of their way to be supportive, he said.

“We’ve got to hand it to our staff who are overworked and underpaid, especially during COVID. They realised the benefits of this,” Mr Silver said.

The telehealth service was initially launched for residents only but  was soon expanded to support families and staff too, he said.

“We opened up to families to refer themselves because of the emotional rollercoaster that they have to go through in terms of the grief and loss in seeing their loved one deteriorate with dementia, for instance, and also the staff because especially during COVD it’s been really stressful,” he said.

A key difference from other counselling services is that there are no eligibility requirements or limits on sessions, Mr Silver said.

“We don’t rule out anyone. We try and deal with whatever is given in front of us.”

Feedback has been “extremely positive” to date, he said.

“People have benefited and also the families have benefited from it. We’ve had very positive feedback from those who have engaged in it,” Mr Silver said.

Swinburne’s counselling and support service has received grant funding from the Helen MacPherson trust and is now looking to expand to rural and remote areas in Victoria.

“We’re going to spend time now trying to develop partnerships and develop a co-design process with all the stakeholders to see how we can improve our services and expand our services through rural remote areas. It’s about accessibility,” Mr Silver said.

The AAG Conference takes place as a virtual event on 9 – 12 November.

Australian Ageing Agenda is a media partner of the AAG.

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  1. It’s fantastic that Swinburne’s Clinic has been able to support residents and families in aged care through the pandemic. Mark is now also coordinating the platform for agencies/counsellors to collaborate in the area of MH of older adults, less medically-informed.

    However, some of us, without the backing of universities + funding, have also been advocating and lobbying for counsellors in aged care and raising awareness of the need to support the MH of older adults. An article I wrote for Community Care Review in 2020 about counsellors in aged care went without acknowledgement.

    Let’s start to acknowledge that counsellors are a valuable professional group who can support older people’s mental health in any care environment and across a range of aged care programs e.g. STRC, HCP. Like other allied health professionals, counsellors may have UG or PG qualifications and may align with one of the professional associations like PACFA to remain registered. That registration demands professional development of a minimum of 20 hours and a minimum of 10 hours of supervision + registration/insurance, etc. The costs each year attest to commitment to our profession. PACFA also hosts Interest Groups like Older People with a focus on building knowledge for members.

  2. What a great initiative. In order to make this and other services like it a real success one key issue needs to be addressed. Residential Aged Care facilities need infrastructure that supports Telehealth. Many have significant issues with screen access, connectivity in rooms and appropriate bandwidth. To address challenges such as this, RAC’s need a 3-5 year technology strategy. One that ensures long-term goals are addressed with planned budgets.

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