COVID-19 lockdowns, infections and deaths in aged care facilities have turned up the pressure on an industry already under significant scrutiny via the Royal Commission.  For a sector already grossly under resourced, 2020 has seen the aged care sector challenged beyond anything we could have imagined.

Three quarters of all COVID-19 related deaths in Australia have occurred in aged care facilities.  This proportion of deaths in residential care in relation to total deaths is amongst the highest in the world.

The pandemic will bequeath us a legacy of disturbing images: gravely ill, masked elderly residents being transported from facilities by paramedics whose humanity is barely visible through the armour of PPE; the frightened faces of locked down residents peeking through blinds or pressed against glass; distraught relatives casting helplessly around for answers;  floral tributes placed at the gates of our worst hit facilities.

Our deepest hope is that the structural issues that have deeply marred our aged care system will be swiftly addressed by the federal government. From this perspective it is important that aged care remains in the news. Harnessing the “horror” of our communities may well, finally, drive the changes we desperately need.

But much of the damage inflicted by COVID-19 is not immediately visible. Dementia Australia’s report, One day the support was gone (25 November 2020), argues that increased social isolation has had a disproportionate impact on people living with dementia and their carers and families.

Lockdowns and limits on visits and social activities have led to the deterioration of health conditions, including accelerated cognitive decline. The report is a plea for more compassionate, imaginative approaches to pandemic restrictions that will enable care to happen in a more human way.

Social connection, meaningful participation, inclusion, purpose, sense of self. These words recur like a mantra through the report. These are the things that make us human – they are, if you like, about soul, our spiritual core. And they are the things that we must prioritise in future reform.

The face of hope is a human face. Whether it be the face of a confident, well-trained personal carer, or the giggling great grandchild on the iPad she holds out for a smiling Nonna.

Jane Foulcher is Deputy Director of St Mark’s National Theological Centre and Associate Head of School at Charles Sturt University’s School of Theology. She researches on human personhood, trauma, and flourishing. Charles Sturt University offers a postgraduate program on Ageing and Pastoral Studies.