Health trusts are to be asked to review their admissions policies for older people entering residential care homes in Northern Ireland.
A consultation was carried out into the future of the centres by the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB).
Health Minister Edwin Poots has said they must remain open as long as residents want to remain there if their needs can be met. It followed a public outcry over plans to close 18 run by the health service.
Acting board chief executive Fionnuala McAndrew said: “I recognise that this process has caused anxiety for residents, their families and carers but I hope that the minister’s statements and our commitment to them will provide the reassurance needed to ensure that any further changes can be managed in a way that does not cause any further concerns.
“There will always be a need for some level of residential care but the changing trends and desires for people must be taken into account too as we plan for the future.”
The proposed changes prompted outrage from residents, families and staff last year, resulting in Mr Poots’ intervention.
The minister recognised that the HSCB had made every effort to engage with residents.
Meetings also took place with representatives from a range of key organisations, including the Human Rights Commission, the Commissioner for Older People, Age NI, Patient Client Council and Carers NI.
Mr Poots said: “In April, I reassured residents that they would remain in their homes for as long as they wished and so long as their needs can continue to be met there.
“Today, I stand by that reassurance because I appreciate the value of the friendships they have forged, the close connections to family and the community and the quality of care and an attachment to the staff.
“However, because there is currently significant spare capacity in homes, I am keen to see an expanded role for them – providing respite care and given the current pressures in our hospital system, potential step-down provision following discharge from hospital.
“I have tasked my officials to explore the potential for residential facilities to serve as broader hubs for older people’s services.”
Trade unions had called for homes to be restored to “full capacity”.
Joe McCusker, regional organiser at Unison, said: “UNISON will continue to challenge this process at every level, and support all residential homes in building and demonstrating their own vision for their future.”
He claimed there “never have been good intentions by those with responsibility and funding for care”.
Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs said: “The future of these homes has always been dependent on the non-admissions policy, which is in place across many of them, being lifted.
“Without the ability to admit new residents, closure remains absolutely inevitable. Any argument otherwise is totally insincere.”
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