by Chloe Ward
Like many who have seen Australia’s aged care system up close, I wasn’t surprised by the Royal Commission into Aged Care’s damning conclusions. When we moved my Dad into residential care in late 2015, my family encountered an opaque, complex, inequitable system, at exactly the time when we needed transparency and simplicity. And mine is one of the ‘good’ stories.
In the midst of a cruel diagnosis—Alzheimer’s, diagnosed when my Dad was only 65—my family was, in some ways, lucky. We could afford to choose the very best care for my Dad, thanks in large part to the superannuation balance he had accrued over decades. We also knew our way around the system. We had watched friends work their way through the aged care system and, only a few years earlier, we had done the same for my grandfather. So, when it came time to find residential care for my Dad, we knew what to do.
We knew that word-of-mouth, especially from friends working in aged care, was worth much more than pictures of clean, spacious rooms on care homes’ websites. We knew that the time you thought you’d spend on assessments, forms, and government websites should be doubled at least. We also knew that getting a spot meant ringing around to care homes every morning to ask if anyone had passed away in the night—which, first of all, makes you feel like a vulture, and second makes you suspect you’re muscling in on a bed that, just as deservedly, could go to someone else.
After all that, and even knowing that we had more options than many families, we still felt lucky when my Dad got a place in a specialist dementia unit in an aged care facility with a good reputation. Even so, with Dad largely out of sight and, by then, vulnerable and unable to speak up for himself, we remained on guard. Stories of neglect and abuse in aged care have followed the sector for years—just last week, the ABC reported horrific allegations of sexual abuse in a Queensland aged care home, which took place in 2016 but was only reported to police five years later. Allegations like this belatedly led the Morrison Government to call the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety in 2018. The Commission reported this week, and its conclusions are devastating.
Australia has been running aged care on the cheap, with much of the rot stemming from the Howard Government’s 1997 Aged Care Act, which opened the sector to privatisation and loosened regulations around staffing.
Amongst the Royal Commission’s 148 recommendations to improve the sector, unions have highlighted the urgent need to improve minimum staffing levels, wages, conditions, training, and skills and qualifications across residential facilities.
“Without adequate staffing and skills mix, with minimum standards for care workers, nursing home residents have suffered terribly, as a result of inadequate levels of care,” Annie Butler, Federal Secretary of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, said on Monday.
This also means confronting private providers who leapt on the Howard Government’s so-called reforms, and for more than twenty years since have prioritised profit, not care, with heartbreaking consequences for older Australians.
Australian Unions insist that the Morrison Government needs to urgently commit to adequate funding to address the heart of the crisis in aged care: a workforce that is overworked, understaffed, underpaid and on insecure work arrangements that make it hard for them to make ends meet. The response package must be watertight—we don’t want to see unscrupulous private providers siphoning off taxpayer funding into shareholder dividends, like so many of Australia’s billionaires did with JobKeeper.
Like I said, my story is one of the ‘good’ ones. My Dad got a place in an aged care facility where he was safe and well-cared for until he passed away in 2017. We were lucky, but the health and safety of older Australians shouldn’t depend on luck. We need confidence in our aged care system. And to have confidence, we need reform.