Older Australians need more support to stay in their homes

16 June 2020

As COVID-19 continues to unfold, it is a particularly difficult time for older Australians and their loved ones, with the very real fear of contracting COVID-19, coupled with isolation and distress as delays for home care grow and support slips away.

The Central Coast of New South Wales, my electorate, is a popular place for older Australians to live. Almost one in five locals are aged over 65, higher than both the state and national average.

Aged care is also a large employer on the Coast, with 24 residential aged-care providers in addition to in-home care, respite care, day centres and nursing services.

As we face COVID-19, aged-care workerson the Coast and across Australia have been working hard to protect older Australians and to keep them safeand they themselves should be safe in their own workplaces.

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of personal protective equipment and the acute shortages. On 1 April, news outlets reported 80 aged-care providers with confirmed cases of COVID-19 or facing severe risk were forced to ask for access to the government's emergency stockpile of PPE that, unless there was a confirmed case of COVID-19, aged-care providers would expect delays. This is not good enough for aged-care workers or the residents they are trying to keep safe.

The lack of support for aged-care workers didn't stop at PPE. On 20 March, the Minister for Aged Care told workers he was going to support them during COVID-19 and that they would receive some financial assistance, some compensation and recognition for their work.

He said that they would 'receive a payment of up to $800 after tax per quarter, paid for two quarters, for direct care workers' and 'two payments of up to $600 after tax per quarter, for two quarters, for those who provide care in the home'.

But, when the guidelines for this support, the so-called retention bonus, were released on 5 June, the payment amounts were switched to before tax. This was after excluding 40 per cent of aged-care workers from the bonus payment altogether. Cleaning, laundry and catering staff were all ruled out of this financial support.

The confusion of the retention bonuswho is eligible and how much foradded to the strain of some of Australia's lowest paid workers on the front line of this pandemic. Aged-care workers deserve betterworkers like Cherie, from Tuggerawong, who willingly complied with a requirement to stop work until returning a negative COVID-19 test after reporting cold-like symptoms to her employer. The problem was that the results took three weeks while Cherie was without pay. Aged-care workers like Cherie, protecting older Australians, shouldn't be penalized for just doing the right thing.

During COVID-19, older Australians need more support, not less, to stay in their own homes and to avoid hospital stays or early entry into residential aged carepeople like Joan Witney. Joan is a widow whose son died three years ago and her closest relatives are two nieces in their sixties who live over an hour away. Joan is currently struggling to get by on a level 3 package.

She is going backwards financially paying for extra care and has been told it is likely to be a 12-month wait for a level 4 package. Joan is hearing and vision impaired and largely immobile after a recent hospital stay. I wrote to the Minister for Aged Care over two months ago, on 6 April, about Joan's plight and the risk older Australians face due to delays, and I am still waiting for a response.

I'd like to turn now to the isolation and loneliness many older Australians have felt during this crisis. Measures put in place have helped stop the spread but have also left families disconnectedfamilies like Rebecca's. Rebeccacontacted me because her six-year-old is desperate to see his GG, who is 97 years old.

He has had his flu shot and can't understand why he can't see his great-grandmother, who he visits every fortnight. When the family asked the aged-care home, they were given a flat no. It's a relief that other family members can visit from behind perspex, but GG can't see her great-grandson, and his mum, Rebecca, tells me that 40 minutes on the phone just isn't the same.

Why is this happening, when aged-care homes have been given $205 million, or the equivalent of $1,350 for each resident in regional areas, to help cover COVID-19 costs, such as staff and visitor screening?

I would like to finish by acknowledging all the aged-care workers for their efforts during this global pandemic. It has been a comfort to residents and has given families peace of mind to know that they are receiving the best of care. On International Cleaners Day, I would like to close by giving a special shout-out to cleaners working in aged care. You deserve the retention bonus, too. Every worker in aged care plays a critical role in keeping older Australians protected and safe and giving families peace of mind, to know that they are okay, as we continue to fight this global pandemicand you should be properly supported to do your job. Sadly, applause and gratitude do not put food on the table or keep a roof over their heads.