The COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to rethink engagement, write Andrea Petriwskyj and Carrie Hayter.

As the COVID pandemic has unfolded, the focus has increasingly been on the wellbeing of those who are most vulnerable to the effects of the virus, including people receiving residential and home care.

Residential aged care services especially have been criticised for both inadequately protecting residents and  isolating them too much. We have heard from providers,  aged care consumers and families about how difficult finding the balance has been.

Dr Andrea Petriwskyj

We have also seen  aged care services here and overseas  finding a broad range of virtual and low-tech ways to help people  connect with their services,  families and  communities.

The strategies we have seen providers adopting include pen pal programs, virtual intergenerational learning and physically distant group activities like doorway bowling.

Services have been providing older people iPads and support to connect with family and friends through video, photos and messages, catch ups and play through windows and online social, entertainment, cooking and exercise programs.

Increased welfare checks and mental health support are also being provided by telephone.  Some of these strategies are reflected in the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission’s guidance to providers to promote safe, quality care during the pandemic. We look forward to seeing some of these initiatives continue after the pandemic measures end.

However, consumer engagement is about more than social connection and wellbeing. It is about how people are involved in care services as partners.

In an emergency, when drastic action needs to be taken, providers are trying to respond in a hurry within significant constraints. Staff and consumers have fears and concerns that need to be heard and acknowledged. However, with increasing stress and pressures, it may be easier for those who don’t have the right skills or systems in place to revert to top-down, blanket responses.

What does good engagement look like?

Perspectives on all sides about the way forward can quickly revert to the us-and-them approach that makes real partnership difficult to create. Partnership is about open, transparent, respectful discussion of everyone’s perspectives and any limitations so solutions can be negotiated. 

Carrie Hayter

Good engagement helps to find a course of action that considers everyone’s needs and interests.

At the very least it ensures  all the voices have been genuinely heard and  transparent discussions and decisions are documented and communicated, where compromises have to be made.

All partners should come to the table willing to have an ongoing conversation.

This discussion must include consumers. It must involve people to the greatest extent possible, regardless of their health conditions or diagnosis. There needs to be mutual recognition of the expertise, experience and rights of all concerned.

These are basic principles that are not changed by an emergency. Rather the limitations, risks, and concerns that need to be negotiated change.

We have worked for a number of years with aged care services on developing their consumer engagement. Before the COVID pandemic, we saw huge variability in the aged care sector in knowledge, skills and implementation of engagement. Partnership is often particularly challenging.

The pandemic is the kind of fast-moving, high pressure situation that shows where there is room to increase people’s understanding and skills, and organisations’ capacity to work differently with consumers.

It is an opportunity to think creatively about engagement and use it to change how staff and consumers work together. If we can see this as an opportunity to try new things, even small steps can have a big impact.

For example, one community care service has told us how they have used the opportunity of the COVID- 19 pandemic to engage with staff and consumers to allow creative ideas to develop.

In the last two months, they have had more ideas from frontline workers and consumers than they’ve had before. They encourage staff and consumers to phone, ring, and email ideas, which they discuss together in weekly meetings.

Effective engagement is an opportunity to manage risks, find solutions and open new spaces for communication. It can be easy to forget that people often have knowledge, skills, and access to resources that can help in a tricky situation.

Consumers and their families and communities are a significant resource and support if they are involved in a meaningful way. Those services with good existing partnership processes, lines of communication and relationships are able to use engagement as a tool to help them respond faster and more creatively.

There are many examples of ways providers have been thinking differently about how to work effectively with consumers and families during the COVID pandemic. But we know some services could use some help navigating partnership in these times.

Free provider resources

After our workshops with service providers around the country for the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, we published printable resources for providers. These are designed to support learning in your organisation. You can find them on the COTA Queensland website, with more resources to follow. 

Over the coming weeks we will be sharing a series of ideas to support effective engagement, along with some questions to ask yourself about what you’re doing in your service. We encourage you to check them out.

We also want to hear your experiences, tips, and ideas. We invite you to share them with us to help support your colleagues across the sector to look at things differently.

Dr Andrea Petriwskyj is coordinator of research and community education at Council on the Ageing (COTA) Queensland and Carrie Hayter is the managing director of Carrie Hayter Consulting.

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2 Comments

  1. It really is a case of nothing about us without us, isn’t it? We see it across all sectors. Excellent, thanks for the article.

  2. In my current workplace, we’ve had volunteers provide a telephone support service to members since 2001. Essentially a social contact, sometimes it was an opportunity to work with social or care issues raised by members. We might have 1-2 meetings a year with volunteers, and limited engagement between the office and volunteers.
    Covid-19 provided an opportunity to not change but to enhance the service to more than 1000 recipients where volunteers provide the service from home. Given the age of our members, we have limited communication to using the trusted phone/mobile. We’ve experienced increased communication with members’ family and helped them access aged care services, but more importantly, we’ve not only increased our volunteers’ knowledge and capacity to engage in Zoom meetings, we’ve also enthused them about choice (volunteer from home or office) in communicating with members.

    Covid-19 has certainly seen our workplace respond at a rapid pace to a changing situation. Like the restrictions, we are also easing on the frequency of communication from fortnight or weekly to now monthly. While initially the call was a ‘social chat’, it’s been transformed to a partnership between volunteers, recipients of the service and management!

    Thank you for the article which helped make sense of our work with volunteers.

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