Margaret Watts watches her husband of nearly 40 years slip away every day the lockdown lingers.
Marcello Zaffonato was admitted to an aged care facility in March after he was diagnosed with dementia.
Ms Watts said she cared him for up to three hours every day, but a recent ban on visits triggered by the Delta outbreak was hastening his deterioration.
After an exhaustive campaign to see him in person, she said she felt forced to make a choice: keep him in the facility and risk him getting worse, or pull him out of aged care altogether.
“I felt if I didn’t do something about it, he’d be dead by Christmas,” Ms Watts said.
“I’m pretty desperate for my husband because he looks so sad, I can’t put my arms around him or anything.”
Marcello Zaffonato (R) and his daughter Sharon in 1987.(Supplied)
The 83-year-old said she’s written appeals to politicians across all levels of government, including NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard and his federal counterpart Greg Hunt, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose Cook electorate she lives in.
She’s also made appeals to the doctors at Garrawarra Centre, the aged care facility in Sydney’s south where 80-year-old Mr Zaffonato has spent the last few months.
“I’m not getting any help from the letters I’ve written,” Ms Watts said.
So on Friday, she drove to Garrawarra Centre and pulled him out of the facility, choosing to take care of him at home. She hopes to enlist the help of a part-time nurse, but said it will be expensive.
“He helped me once, when I was heartbroken over something that happened years and years ago,” she said.
“It took me five years to get over it, and he helped me, so I’ve got to help him now.”
Aged care facilities are filled with the demographic most vulnerable to COVID-19. Many banned visits to prevent possible exposure to the virus.
But experts warn people with dementia rely on familiar faces to hold onto their memories, identities and faculties. Without it, deterioration can hasten.
“People at nursing homes are definitely at increased risk of dying from COVID, but they can also die from loneliness,” Lee-Fay Low said, an expert in aged care and dementia at the University of Sydney.
“If people stop being able to do things, it’s unusual for them to be able to start doing them again.”
Garrawarra Centre’s staff are helping residents make video calls to keep in touch with their families, and are separating two rooms with a perspex window so residents can have visitors without making contact.
Professor Low praised the efforts, but said they wouldn’t help residents who only have touch left to communicate thoughts, meaning and emotion.
Marcello was admitted to the aged care facility in Sydney’s south in March.(Supplied)
Touch is one of the few languages Mr Zaffonato still understands, his wife said.
“I haven’t been able to put my arms around him for six weeks,” Ms Watts said.
“I [want to] say to him, ‘I love you, I haven’t forgotten you and I want you with me as long as possible’.”
Margaret Crothers from Seniors Rights Service said the toll of social isolation and loneliness for partners of aged care residents also shouldn’t be underestimated.
“The partners of people who are living in residential care are also suffering isolation,” Ms Crothers said.
“For some, the only activities that they’ve done for the day is to go into the aged care home, assist their partner wife or husband have a meal or just sit with them.”
Margaret says she wants her husband with her as long as possible.(Supplied)
As the lockdown surpasses two months and case numbers continue to break records, Premier Gladys Berejiklian said it’s likely the state will have to live with the Delta variant of COVID-19.
At least 10 aged care residents with COVID-19 have died across Australia this year.
But vaccinations have since helped significantly lower the number of deaths.
Both Ms Watts and Mr Zaffonato are fully vaccinated. To help make visits possible, she had even volunteered to take rapid antigen tests, but the facility had declined.
Loneliness is a major concern for patients in nursing homes, says Professor Low.