By Chief Advocate Ian Henschke
I’ve been working as an advocate for National Seniors for the past two years, and as a journalist for more than 30. I’ve covered everything from bush fires to bus crashes, royal tours to royal shows, but never a Royal Commission.
So, helping prepare our submission and going to the hearings of the latest one, into Aged Care Quality and Safety, has been fascinating.
When someone commits a crime, they’re put on trial. If a system fails it can, in a way, be put on trial, too. Expert witnesses are called to give evidence before a person or persons sitting in judgement. We saw this most recently with the investigation into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry.
Victims have their say. Sometimes people lose their jobs and end up facing criminal charges. The former was the case in the banking inquiry, and the latter with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. There were 2,575 referrals to authorities and many have resulted in the jailing of a serial paedophiles such as Victor Higgs from St Ignatius College in Adelaide and Sydney. He was the boarding master who among others molested Barnaby Joyce. Former Vatican treasurer, now convicted child sex offender, Cardinal George Pell’s fall from grace is the most infamous.
There are victims wanting to tell their stories in the aged care inquiry, too. One of the key reasons it’s being held in Adelaide is because of the dreadful and deadly events that took place at the SA government-run Oakden Older Persons Mental Health Facility in the Adelaide suburb of Oakden. It was fitting, therefore, that the first voices heard were from the family of a victim, Bob Spriggs.
His wife Barbara and son Clive still don’t know what happened to their loved one. All they know is Bob was drugged, mistreated and died with unexplained bruises on his body. By speaking out they, and the families of the other victims, made the SA government shut down Oakden and the federal government enquire into the whole aged care system. This includes the failings of both residential and home care.
National Seniors CEO Professor John McCallum spoke to our submission on the first afternoon of Commission hearings, after the Spriggs, and said the home care waiting list was a “running sore” and a “profoundly critical failure”. When asked, nearly all people say they want to stay in their home for as long as possible and die at home if possible. Instead they’re dying waiting for help.
My brother, a National Seniors member, wrote one of the more than 1200 submissions to the Royal Commission so far. Late last year he opened a letter addressed to his wife. It said she’d been approved for a home care package. The letter from My Aged Care said it may not be at the level she wanted and should arrive in the next three months. She never saw the letter because she died a year before the letter arrived. She had an incurable brain tumour and had been cared for at home for two years. The offer was three years too late, and an insult to injury.
According to figures released this week, almost 128,000 people are waiting for a home care package. Just imagine filling the Melbourne Cricket Ground to capacity with people waiting. It holds 100,000. So, you’ll still have another 28,000 people waiting outside. My sister-in-law was one of those waiting for help she needed and never received.
Les Warrener’s still on the list.
His wife Kaye told Commissioners Lynelle Briggs and Richard Tracey QC in the second week of hearings that her husband had been waiting for a level 3 package (the second highest level) for more than 450 days. She, like my brother, had received a letter last year. It arrived 21 March 2018, saying the vital support for Les was three months away. But almost a year later the Warreners are still waiting and Les’s health is deteriorating.
The scale of the problem and demand for services is immense. The Commission was told there are more than 425,000 Australians with dementia. That will rise to 1.1 million by 2056. The average age of someone needing home care is 75 and going into aged care is 85.
The Commission is holding hearings in regional areas now and returning to Adelaide for another round from 18 to 22 March. That round will focus on home care. It will turn its attention to residential care, with particular regard to dementia, starting 6 May. A reminder that you can still make a submission until the middle of the year.
Perhaps the most powerful image presented so far came from Gerard Hayes, head of the Health Services Union. Mr Hayes said every year we dress up aged care residents for ANZAC Day and after that “they’re left by themselves”.
After that one day of the year, they’re out of sight, out of mind. Lest we forget.
First published in the Adelaide Advertiser on 9 March 2019.