Regional Australia hungry for care

By Professor John McCallum, National Seniors Australia.

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Key Points

  • Aged Care Royal Commissioners' recommendations are due in late February
  • How to provide adequate care in rural and regional Australia will be scrutinised by National Seniors
  • The shortage of nurses, quality GP’s, medical providers, hospitals and emergency departments also needs to be addressed

As the New Year dawns and thoughts of Christmas lunch fade, spare a thought for the Aged Care Royal Commissioners who still have plenty on their plate over the next month and a half.

Having listened to almost two years of evidence, Commissioners Tony Pagone and Lynelle Briggs now have to sift through all the ingredients that will form their recommendations due in late February.

One key ingredient to be looking for is their response to the challenge of providing adequate care in rural and regional Australia.

In November last year, the Royal Commission travelled to the NSW Central West to hear three days of evidence.

A lot of that evidence will come as no surprise to residents of rural and regional towns.

There was one story of a woman who tearfully told the Commission she was worried she’d be forced to give up her farm, because her home care provider abruptly cut off its services citing difficulty in accessing her property.

Not only that, she continued to be charged after the provider ceased its visits.

The Commission heard another story of a registered nurse who was bullied and threatened by staff at an aged care facility where her mother was a resident, because she complained about how she was being treated.

And since it was in a small town, she refused to reveal the name of the home for fear her mother would be further neglected.

They were the individual cases.

Then there are the familiar and common themes when it comes to aged care in rural and regional Australia.

Such as the need to attract better trained nursing staff, but as we know, trying to lure high quality care workers from the big smoke is like the chicken and the egg.

Regional care providers are told to pay more for their staff, the providers say they don’t have the money and round and round it goes.

The chairman of one regional aged care home told the Commission last November that when he advertised for a Deputy Director of Nursing, he received one application for the job.

This causes significant stress and upheaval to older Australians in aged care, because the shortage of quality care in their hometowns, forces them into larger towns or the capitals to get the care they need.

They are driven, literally hundreds of kilometres away from their home, far, far away from friends and family.

In many cases these are people who have called where they lived their hometown all their lives.

National Seniors has done a lot of research on the challenges that are unique to older Australians living in regional areas.

For example, we found the shortage of quality residential aged care means on average, those living in regional Australia are forced to move 86 kilometres away and people in remote/very remote areas move 400 kilometres away.

Compare that to city residents who on average move 39 kilometres away.

There’s also a sense of helplessness about the tyranny of distance. As one respondent put it in our research, “this move often signals the end of their lives.”

And it’s not just a shortage of nurses. There is also a lack of quality GP’s, medical providers and hospitals and emergency departments.

The COVID-19 pandemic only serves to exacerbate this, because when our international borders were open, part of the solution was to train overseas nurses and doctors to care for older Australians.

I know for many of you, these issues have long been a part of rural and regional life, but when we carry out our research there’s a sense of frustration and desperation from older Australians living outside metropolitan areas, that their cries for help are being ignored.

There’s also an anxiety about being able to afford aged care whether it be in their homes (where the overwhelming majority of Australians want to be looked after) or residential aged care.

A lot of participants in our research say too many aged care providers are more interested in caring for profits than they are about caring for their own residents or patients.

As one respondent told us, “They are understaffed by less qualified people than should be and they don’t care”.

There is now however, hope.

National Seniors has been actively engaged with the aged care industry through its workforce council in partnership with the government.

Already the council has established an accord to take on the challenges remote and very remote communities have in accessing high quality care.

The council’s vision is to “develop a world-class workforce that can provide quality and skilled aged care services which meets the care needs of older Australians now and into the future.”

It might seem like we’re a long way from that aspiration, but the Royal Commission has given the case for change in all areas of aged care real momentum.

The industry and the government are on notice.

Substandard care wherever it is perpetrated won’t be tolerated, not in the cities nor country towns.

Commissioners Pagone and Briggs now have a feast of ideas to consider and the perfect opportunity to come up with a recipe to fix aged care and that includes a generous slice for rural and regional Australia.