An association representing social workers is calling for Health Service Executive social workers to be part of Covid-19 response teams deployed to overwhelmed nursing homes, in order to assist communications with families.
The Irish Association of Social Workers (IASW) said this is essential because families of some residents have experienced communication breakdown with nursing homes as their loved ones died during the pandemic.
IASW's Sinead McGarry said working as part of the outbreak team, social workers would act as crisis support and communication liaisons for families and nursing home residents.
"HSE social workers could be facilitated through temporary deployment that public nursing homes did this successfully during the pandemic's first and thirds waves," she added.
The IASW has written to the Minister for Health and the HSE about its calls.
It also said there is a need for clearer guidelines for families of nursing home residents, so they know exactly what the rules are in terms of visiting sick or dying relatives during restrictions.
"The national guidance is dense, it is complex and we haven't provided any plain English guides for residents or families.
"We also don't have any information in that guidance for families if nursing homes refuse to work with the spirit of the guidance, or comply with the recommendations that are contained within it," Ms McGarry said.
"Families have found themselves unable to comfort or connect with their relative in the final days of their lives because in some cases they cannot contact the nursing home because it is so overwhelmed," she added.
"For families who are getting in to spend time with their relatives at the end of life, some are saying that it is at a very late stage when the person is unaware of their presence. It is causing huge distress and huge upset.
"We have to remember that these are residents and families that have had a prolonged period of separation over the course of almost a year now. For some family members this may be the first time they are seeing them or physically connecting with them.
"We have written to the Minister for Health, with a range of both concerns and solutions, such as the introduction of the liaison model in crisis situations, timely investment in safe visiting spaces, safeguarding concerns in absence of family visits, lack of guidance to support families and residents to exert their rights if nursing home refuse to comply with visiting guidance."
Care Champions, a family run group on Facebook for people in care and in nursing homes, said people have contacted it after failing to contact their nursing homes.
"Some people are saying 'we are so thankful when a phone is actually answered'," group spokesperson Majella Beattie said.
She added: "Because nursing homes are so overrun at the minute there is nobody to contact. When there is an outbreak in a nursing home people are overly worried - and rightly so.
"There needs to be an individual advocate in a nursing home or a liaison officer that family can contact to work with the family to let them know what's happening and give them updates."
Nursing Homes Ireland CEO Tadhg Daly said that from a nursing home point of view, "what we need to ensure now, given the pressures on the entire health service and nursing homes, is that all available resources are deployed and that is ultimately a matter for the HSE".
He added there is "very good communications" between nursing homes, residents and families.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health said it is continuing engagement with the HSE and Nursing Homes Ireland, adding redeployment of social workers is a matter for the HSE.
The HSE said it is open to reviewing the IASW's proposals, but also pointed to the recommendations of the Expert Panel Review for Nursing Homes, which stated that each nursing home provider takes a lead role to ensure dedicated staff facilitates communication with residents and families.