Standing up for Aged Care

Standing up for Aged Care Main Image

14 February 2022

Aged-care workers came to Canberra last week, exhausted and overworked, some straight from a night shift, determined to tell their stories so that Australians know the truth about aged care. They spoke of frail, elderly people stuck in their rooms with wounds untended, without water to drink, and sitting for hours in incontinence pads left unchanged. They spoke of their devastation at not having time to care, to comfort someone dying alone or to share a kind word. Sadly, this government was warned and failed to act.

It was clear from countless reports and inquiries that the aged-care system was in crisis long before the pandemic. But many people will remember that it wasn't until Four Corners aired their investigation into abuse and neglect in residential aged-care homes in 2018 that the Prime Minister was forced to act. The final report of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, Care, dignity and respect, was delivered almost 12 months ago in February last year. The report contained 148 recommendations to urgently address the crisis in aged care. Some 12 months later the implementation of any of the recommendations has been painfully slow—even recommendations which were accepted in full, which were less than half. Many are only being partly implemented, and nearly a quarter have been rejected outright or listed for further consideration. As a result, the aged-care sector has lurched from neglect to crisis, and older Australians are the ones who are bearing the brunt of the government's inaction.

I'm often contacted by locals concerned about the quality of care. They know that aged-care workers are dedicated but under strain. They know that aged-care workers are doing their best but in a crisis. Bruce from Hamlyn Terrace told me that his sister-in-law has been in aged care for five years and that, during that time, he's noticed a significant deterioration in the quality of care, particularly after the home was taken over by a major corporate provider. Bruce said that prescriptions don't appear to be kept up to date, sandwiches now count as meals for both lunch and dinner, and the home is completely understaffed. He was concerned, after his sister-in-law's diabetes diagnosis, that the meals provided would cause her health to deteriorate further. He says that when the family couldn't visit due to COVID restrictions it was impossible to get an update on his sister-in-law's care, but they are reluctant to complain in case it impacts her. He said: 'Nobody is doing anything or taking notice of residents' needs. Something needs to be done.' This can't and won't improve while aged care is underfunded and understaffed.

Aged-care homes are already struggling to retain existing staff, and the token buyout of a retention bonus from the government won't keep aged-care workers in the system or attract others while work is insecure and the demands grow day by day. Aged-care workers are dedicated, but a warm inner glow doesn't pay the rent, keep food on the table or protect their family from harm. Leanne, an aged-care worker from Lake Haven, told me recently:

Nothing has been done to retain aged care workers through improved wages or conditions. Politicians have constantly been told of this crisis. Staff are leaving the workforce, they are burnt out, tired, sad, working so many additional hours to cover staff shortages. We are overwhelmed with conflicting responsibilities—to care for residents, look after our own health and that of our families. Making sure we don't let our guard down even in our private lives, the care of the residents is at the forefront of our thoughts even when not at work.

She goes on:

Aged care workers are being separated from our families to try and keep the residents safe. How can we continue to work like this? We are giving our absolute best, but that just isn't good enough.

It was four years ago yesterday that I lost my father to younger onset dementia, a cruel disease that stole my father from us piece by piece, day by day. I will be forever grateful to the dedicated aged-care staff at his day care centre, in my parents' home and in respite care who lovingly helped to care for my father. But I cannot forgive this Prime Minister for his cuts to aged care as Treasurer, leaving older Australians abandoned and neglected and alone. And I can never forgive the minister for aged care for abandoning older Australians in his care, under his responsibility, and for leaving aged-care workers exhausted, overworked and in crisis.

I will finish with the words of Debbie, an aged-care worker, from a handwritten letter she handed to me last week. She said:

By not acting in a timely manner to rectify past failures in aged care, the Prime Minister continues to enable the neglect of our frail, vulnerable elderly in care. Time is vitally important, especially for those currently in care.

Time's running out. Vulnerable Australians are at risk. The Prime Minister must act now.