THE greatest gift the public can give their elderly relatives this Christmas is to not overrun our care homes – or we will run the risk of soaring numbers of deaths in the New Year.

That is the warning of Scottish Care chief executive Dr Donald Macaskill who told the Sunday National: “Everybody working in care recognises that Christmas has always been an extremely important time both for residents and family members.

“But obviously we are dealing with a population that is at the height of vulnerability and always has been throughout Covid. But increasingly at this time of year they are even more vulnerable because of risks from seasonal flu and respiratory conditions.

“It will be a Christmas with a very real difference. So traditionally lots of people would visit on Boxing Day and the days around Christmas. Fewer people would tend to visit on Christmas Day to be truthful. However it’s not going to be possible for everybody to visit though in the volumes that they’re used to.

“So regardless of what may happen to the rest of society if we are allowed to meet in greater numbers in homes for this so-called five-day period they are talking about, we’re not likely to allow that degree of flexibility in care homes.”

Dr Macaskill insists that these sacrifices will prevent a mounting death toll, adding: “The people most at risk two weeks later are people in care homes because the virus comes into the care home from the community.

“And if we see a huge increase in the virus in the days after Christmas and New Year then that will result in infections and tragically deaths in care homes.

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“So I suppose my question to everybody is how important are those two or three days of multiple contacts when you compare them to months and months of life for somebody?

“Because the virus is not taking a holiday, it is not taking five days off, it’s not taking note that people are going to be together and are going to have a good time.

“Christmas is traditionally about being with people, giving gifts and celebrating. But I think that this Christmas the greatest gift that we can give is a degree of sacrifice of our own needs and an appreciation that the best way we can support others and reducing the extent to which we celebrate Christmas.

“What care homes are trying to do is maximise the number of people who are trying to see their family members so that there is nobody in a care home who might want a visit and won’t have over that two-week period the opportunity to see that into fulfilment.

“My greatest fear is that if we relax things too much we will have a terrible harvest in the New Year.”

Scottish Care is ideally suited to see how important it is for care home residents and relatives to see each other in person, especially at Christmas, and Dr Macaskill urged the authorities to speed up their testing procedures.

He said: “What we’re hoping for is that there is a considerable amount of energy put in so that we can enable testing machines to have as many of them in place as possible so that over the Christmas and New Year period more people can visit than can currently visit indoors at the moment.

“Lots of care homes have started to do work in the area but we need the sort of strategic commitment for the supply of these machines and the training that goes with them to make it happen. Now it’s going to be a tall order in a very small period of time to enable all that to happen but everybody is committed to try their best to achieve that.”

Dr Macaskill accepts how important it is to the mental and physical health of elderly residents to see their relatives, saying: “People coming to visit care homes are coming to visit people, many of whom have not had their presence for months and months and months.

“For those who are used to everyday visits from families, those who don’t have dementia, it’s making a profound impact. And equally for those living with dementia the presence of family is hugely important.

“And it’s devastating but it’s also devastating for family members and the staff. The people working in care homes and home care are exhausted, and they, more than anybody, want a return to normality. But they, probably better than anybody else, know the dangers of us letting our guard down over the next few weeks.”

Age Scotland echoed Scottish Care’s cautionary plea on the importance of facilitating families spending time with their relatives in the care homes, while stressing too how increased isolation is affecting the elderly.

Chief executive Brian Sloan said: “For some families and residents the prospect of a short, distanced visit or no visit at all to a loved one on Christmas Day will be very upsetting.”

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Age Scotland highlighted too how alternative arrangements for contact within the social restrictions had its challenges.

Sloan added: “While some residents and their families will manage to make the most of a tough situation by celebrating via Zoom or FaceTime, it is not an option for many older people who don’t use or have access to a tablet or smart phone.

“In recent months we have heard from families of care home residents who have seen a dramatic decline in the health of their loved ones during lockdown, including those whose relatives are living with dementia.

“They have spoken movingly about care home residents who no longer recognise close relatives or those living with dementia who think they have been abandoned because no-one has been to see them.’’

And they are fully supportive of the efforts being made by care homes to bring families together over the festive period.

The coalface care homes are having to reimagine Christmas in imaginative ways and are asking for support from the wider community.

Louise Barnett, managing director of Renaissance Care, said: “It has been an extremely long and challenging year for our residents, staff and relatives, and as many look to the spirit of Christmas to bring some joy back in 2020, restrictive measures within care homes will detract from what is usually a fun and enjoyable time for our people.

“We are currently focused on plans for outdoor visits as a priority, to ensure that loved ones will enjoy a Christmas visit where guidance allows, and are working closely with the activities coordinators for each of our homes to come up with creative ways to preserve the magic of Christmas.

“It is likely that traditions such as indoor Christmas decorations and carol singing will not be allowed within our homes this year, so to help put a smile on a resident or staff member’s face, we’re working with local people and businesses to make the festive period as special as we can.”

Barchester Healthcare is also planning for a very different Christmas, with a spokesperson saying: “We are innovating and investing across all regions to enable safe visiting, while we wait to see what emerges in the coming weeks, in terms of the next phase of official guidance.”