Hot on the heels of a pandemic year, Natalie Briffa Farrugia was ever so determined to set up a well-being strategy and policy for the CareMalta Group, “our first and most important investment this year,” she says.

“The truth is that the pandemic has felt longer than it actually was. Thanks to the vaccine, the road ahead is more optimistic, although not an easy one. While it is important to stick to precautionary measures in place, we must also have the confidence to let go of what has happened, appreciate the present moment and believe in the future.”

There is no doubt that the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on us all. However, Natalie, who has around 1,600 residents under her wing, says this must not dampen our human spirit. “Having been separated from our elderly, I yearned to be with our residents, talk to them face to face and hear what they had to say.”

Visiting CareMalta homes during the presentation of long-service awards to employees on June 4, the Vassallo Group’s 75th anniversary, Natalie got the chance to speak to some of the residents after such a long absence. Touched by their resilience and courage in the face of adversity, she says “our older generations deserve to be recognised, valued and admired for their strength. The human spirit is bigger than this pandemic.”

The CEO says COVID-19 has stolen many precious joys, both physical and spiritual. People have lost faith, beliefs, friendships, time, space, identity, love… “But, no matter what, hope prevails.”

The last time she was interviewed for CareNet’s 2020 edition, Natalie’s biggest fear was that we lived in an ageist world. “Unfortunately, ageism has become more evident during the pandemic, with older persons still bearing the brunt of discrimination and prejudice. Despite being the first to receive the vaccine, they were until a few weeks ago only allowed to go out of care homes accompanied by their relatives,” she says.

Elderly residents only started going out on their own from July 19.

Despite all odds, the CEO says the group’s main objective is to continue making a difference in people’s lives.

“The elderly care sector will be faced with several challenges in the years to come, one of which is a 2,000-bed surplus, which our group had predicted in its 2019 management plan. On the other hand, looking at the bright side, during the pandemic, all care home operators teamed up in a bid to take the sector to a higher level,” says Natalie, who chairs the Malta Chamber’s Care Home Operators Section and is involved in the Maltese Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics, “a strong voice for the elderly”.

Looking ahead, Natalie says the group is ready to do so much more through diversification. “We are looking at growth in sectors already operated by our subsidiary HILA (Home to Independence and Living Abilities) and focusing all our energies on opening up a whole new spectrum of services in the mental health sector.”

Born five years ago, HILA operates Casa Apap Bologna in Mosta, Dar Bjorn in Qormi and Casal Nuovo in Paola, offering specialised services to persons living with disability, ALS and other motor neuron diseases, as well as mental health conditions.

“Our well-being policy reflects the group’s future long-term vision – making a difference in people’s lives through our core values of compassion, engagement and professionalism,” Natalie says.

The group’s mental healthcare model is centred around the needs of the vulnerable client, be it an older person or an individual with disability or mental health issues, de-institutionalising the person and doing away with stigma.

“The focus of our care plan is to treat persons living with mental health issues with dignity, welcoming them back into the community with open arms and helping them recreate special connections with their families,” she explains.

“As a group, we have looked at several care models specifically tailor-made for persons facing mental health problems. Whereas in the past, it was generally up to a mental hospital’s multidisciplinary team to decide on what is the best way forward, our novel approach looks at every single player on the same level. The family, together with the psychiatric team will be working together in the best interest of the person.”

Natalie says it’s all about adopting a different mindset – looking at the problems of persons with mental health
issues as your own, since, after all, they are part of our community.

“All our care facilities – whether it’s a CareMalta elderly home or a respite or mental health facility operated by HILA – are deep in the heart of the community and this is the way it should be.”