Better aged care is all in the detail

August 16, 2013

By Emily MIllane

Reducing the paperwork. Spending less time ‘doing bureaucracy’.

Consistent with the non-language used by both leaders in this election campaign, Tony Abbott’s description of the key issue facing the aged care sector during Sunday’s leader’s debate sounded like code for: “I don’t know and to tell you the truth, I haven’t really turned my mind to it.”

The Prime Minister’s response was marginally more considered, but still lacked any of Kevin Rudd’s beloved specificity.

During the debate, neither leader gave any sign that they have a plan for addressing the profound social and economic implications of ageing and longevity.

When pressed on his plans for aged care by ABC journalist Lyndal Curtis, our would-be PM showed a complete lack of appreciation of the issues facing the aged care sector. Judging by his remarks and the paucity of space allocated to aged care in the LNP brochure, it simply isn’t a priority for an Abbott government.

The thing is, neither party has the luxury of being able to marginalise ageing in their agenda. It’s simply too large an issue, with implications too profound to ignore.

While Mr Rudd noted the potential of assistive technology and the importance of a better-paid aged care workforce, his comments were broad generalisations. How exactly is the National Broadband Network helping older Australians at home when the Broadband for Seniors initiative only makes provision for the NBN to be rolled out to community centres like RSLs and community halls? How do we pay aged care workers more if government revenue is in decline?

When the ABC aired its Lateline investigation into Australia’s aged care system in July, we heard stories of people in aged care being left for days with broken bones or exposed cartilage due to not being turned regularly. We saw wounds that weren’t dressed and had been left to fester for days.

The story evoked a visceral reaction because it was about people being dehumanised. People in our own backyard. People the system was meant to protect. It is insulting to these people and their families to say, as Mr Abbott suggests, that the Government’s focus ought to be on de-bureaucratising aged care.

One of the most significant issues which the aged care sector faces is the lack of accreditation which aged care workers receive in their education. Providers at a recent aged-care conference in Melbourne spoke of aged-care workers being ‘unleashed’ on their facilities with variable skill levels, often without the knowledge required to deal with complex conditions such as dementia.

Creating national standards of aged care training and accreditation of courses is one way to overcome this. Another way is to make aged care a career, allowing progression from basic care to more complex care and then potentially on to nursing.

As Mr Rudd rightly noted, we need to address the poor working conditions of the aged care workforce. You’re not going to consider aged care a career if you get more money working at McDonald’s.

However, Mr Rudd provided no indication of how we might improve the conditions of people working in aged care. The Government’s Living Longer, Living BetterÂpackage allocated $1.2 billion for a Workforce Compact to improve the wages, conditions and career paths of people in aged care. This is a welcome initiative, but the question is how to sustainably improve aged care working conditions given that aged care is the fastest growing area of budget expenditure and revenue is contracting.

When pressed on ageing, both leaders moved the discussion onto the economy more broadly, the terrain which they have staked out as the key election battleground. In doing so, both missed the point that ageing itself will be increasingly important for our economy.

Older Australians represent an economic opportunity on the demand and supply sides. As our society ages, economies will evolve which are specific to older people, such as aged tourism and leisure. On the supply side, we have already witnessed a growth in the over-65 workforce since 2008, which is set to continue as our pension age increases to 67 in 2023. Granted, the questions the leaders were asked were on aged care, but the tendency to consider aged care in isolation from other issues relating to older Australians is part of the problem.

The economic potential of older Australians is interrelated to their health and the health of their loved ones. Older Australians can only be productive if they are able to manage health issues – physical and mental – which tend to increase with age. One in five Australians over 65s have caring responsibilities that take them out of the workforce or prevent them from their weekly catch-up with friends. And so it goes.

With some thoughtful policy we have an opportunity to harness the demographic changes our society is undergoing and to improve the lives of older Australians. If for no other reason, the parties need to do so because older Australians are a growing cohort of voters.