Visiting a care home during coronavirus

Many care homes closed to visitors in March or even February 2020. As a friend or family member, you may be desperate to see the person you care about face-to-face. Each home and resident is different, but our advice here should help you prepare for visiting again.

Why are more care homes now reopening?

New, long-awaited, government guidance on care home visits has made it a little easier for homes to begin to reopen. (This guidance is for England. Guidance for care homes in Wales and Northern Ireland is similar in principle, but a few details are different.)

Not all care homes are able to reopen immediately. Your home may ask you to continue with remote contact (by phone or video call) for a bit longer, if this has worked for you and the person you care about.

The reason reopening is gradual is because coronavirus has not gone away. Care homes are now getting more help than they were with personal protective equipment and regular testing for residents and staff. The impact on people with dementia and their families of not having visitors for so long has also become clearer.

The measures to protect against the virus, together with the government guidance, have made it easier for homes to cautiously begin to accept visitors. Decisions about whether a particular care home can now allow visits will be made by local authority public health staff and the home manager.

For more about how they make these decisions about opening (or not), see our advice on keeping in touch with a person with dementia in a care home.

What will happen if I can visit?

When the home says that you can visit, they will explain what you need to do.

The home should show you their general visiting policy. The home should also have - and agree with you - a visiting plan, which is part of the person’s individual care plan. The visiting plan should be person-centred – it should look at the risks to them from the virus as well as the risks to their wellbeing due to not having visitors.

For a person with dementia, especially if they have struggled with remote contact, a lack of direct visits may be worsening dementia and causing apathy, agitation and challenging behaviours. Talk to the home about the benefits to wellbeing that your visit could bring.

All care homes are different, so where visits are arranged the details will vary. However, visits will generally be allowed if anyone is nearing the end of their life.

The broad guidance is designed to permit visits but keep risks of infections as low as possible. It recommends that:

  • you book in advance – so people don’t all visit at once. The care home will keep details of visitors to support the NHS test and trace service
  • you avoid using public transport to visit, if possible – ask the home if this will cause you problems
  • visitors are limited – if possible, just one named person to visit and the same person every time
  • you wear protective covering. This may be:
    • a face covering or basic mask
    • face mask and gloves, similar to the PPE (personal protective equipment) staff will be wearing – if you are in close personal contact
    • a see-through, full-face visor – if a face covering or mask would cause the person severe distress.
  • you wash or sanitise your hands when you arrive and leave – staff will help with this.

Over the past few months, most care homes have worked out safer ways for you to speak with the person you care about. Depending on the home, its layout and the weather, you might be asked to:

  • meet in a garden or outdoor space – where you can safely sit or walk two metres (three steps) apart
  • catch up in a special visiting room or outdoor 'pod' – which is cleaned thoroughly between visits
  • speak to the person from behind a see-through plastic screen – like those seen in supermarkets now
  • meet in the person’s room – but go directly there and meet no other residents
  • chat through an open ground-floor window or patio door
  • have a ‘drive-through’ visit – where you talk through your open car window to the person sitting two metres away.

Your reunion may well be emotional. If it’s been a long time since they saw you – and if the person has memory problems, you may need to gently remind them who you are. Clothes, a hair style and perfume/aftershave that are more familiar to the person may help them remember you.

You may need to mention the virus to explain why you couldn’t visit before. Talking about earlier times you’ve enjoyed together may be a way of keeping the conversation more cheerful.

Don’t be surprised if the person’s dementia has got worse since you last saw them or if they seem low. They may improve with ongoing support, and their feelings for you remain, even if they seem hidden.

It’s natural to want to hold hands or have a hug or cuddle. Staff will advise but it will come down to the individual. This type of close personal interaction will sadly need to be kept brief, if at all.

Try to be flexible and work with everyone as best you can. Before you leave, arrange the next visit. This will give you and the person something to focus on and look forward to.

Last updated 19 October 2020

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