Because we care … about aged care

ANF launches major campaign to put aged care in the national spotlight and give aged care nurses the recognition they deserve.

In the nursing profession, aged care is often perceived as the poor cousin to the public health system. With lower wages, inadequate staffing and skills mix, misperceptions about their role and work by other nurses, and the negative portrayals of aged care in the media, it’s little wonder aged care nurses feel undervalued and unrecognised for their hard work caring for older Australians.

In March, the ANF will launch a major campaign to address issues facing nurses and residents in aged care in Australia. All ANF branches, including the NSWNA, have joined forces to develop a major, very focused national campaign to put aged care high on the political and public agenda.

NSWNA General Secretary Brett Holmes said, ‘Your union is standing up for aged care. We will be leading the charge to address issues facing nurses and residents in aged care in Australia.

‘We will be giving voice to aged care nurses who deserve recognition for their hard work and to residents and their families who deserve quality care.’

Over the next two years leading up to the Federal Election, the campaign has been designed to put pressure on the Government to address issues essential to raising the value and ensuring the delivery of quality aged care in Australia. This includes increasing accountability in the allocation of funding and improving staffing levels.

The campaign aims to build alliances with aged care providers and community stakeholders to address issues also essential to quality care and raising the professionalism of the sector, such as better pay and conditions to attract qualified and experienced nursing staff.

The campaign also aims to raise awareness of aged care issues in the general community and build a more positive image of the profession.

Campaign based on evidence

To guide the development of relevant objectives, policies and approach for the campaign, the ANF and NSWNA commissioned extensive research to ascertain issues and attitudes to aged care by aged care nurses, the community and residents’ families. Qualitative research was conducted with aged care nurses and residents’ families.

Valuing aged care nurses

An important aspect of the campaign is giving aged care nurses the recognition they deserve.

‘Your union will be working to achieve recognition and reward for aged care nurses. This will be a major priority for the ANF and NSWNA over the next two years,’ said Brett.

The campaign aims to increase understanding within the nursing profession, and by their employers, the community and government of the real nursing role of aged care nurses.

‘Recognition of the important nursing role of aged care nurses is behind the Union’s push for improved wages and conditions in the aged care sector, and for adequate staffing by qualified nurses in aged care facilities,’ said Brett.

‘Aged care nurses play an outstanding and interesting role caring for older Australians. With an ageing population, residents in aged care facilities have increasingly more complex care needs that require high levels of professional nursing care.

‘Highly qualified and committed NSWNA members choose to work in aged care because they love older people and they love their work. They see their work as immensely rewarding and enjoyable. Aged care nurses are very proud of their profession.

‘We want to share their stories with other nurses and the community and highlight the interesting roles and career paths in aged care,’ said Brett.

Improving staffing levels and skills mix

The research revealed the need for adequate staffing levels and licenced workers as the most important issues for nurses and residents’ families.

‘Nurses and residents’ families reported that the sector needs to have minimum staffing levels and skills mix to ensure quality time can be provided to each resident, so nurses can attend to the individual needs of residents,’ said Brett.

‘Nurses also tell us we need to ensure that aged care is delivered by licenced nursing staff to elevate the professionalism of the aged care sector.’

Recognising aged care nurses through improved wages and conditions

The campaign research also revealed that aged care nurses feel they deserve better pay and conditions.

In NSW, registered nurses in aged care are paid up to $144 less each week than public sector nurses. Yet, they have undertaken the same training and education and have equivalent nurse qualifications, experience and workloads as public sector nurses.

‘Aged care nurses deserve to be recognised through fair pay and conditions,’ said Brett.

‘Bargaining for a new Union Collective Agreement is one way to improve your wages and conditions.

‘The more aged care nurses in the Union, the greater our bargaining power. We need to increase membership in the aged care sector to increase our capacity to negotiate better pay and conditions.

‘Over the past five years, the NSWNA has worked with our aged care members to achieve significant gains in pay and conditions,’ said Brett.

‘But we have a long way to go. We need to close the wages’ gap so aged care nurses are paid the same as their public health system colleagues,’ said Brett.

‘But to achieve pay parity, more aged care nurses need to join the Union.’

Increasing accountability and transparency

The focus groups also reported that greater accountability and transparency in the aged care sector is required so that government funding is directly tied to the provision of care.

‘The NSWNA believes a clearly defined proportion of funding needs to be allocated to staffing or direct services. And residents need to be allocated a set number of hours of staff time, according to the level of care they require,’ said Brett.

Vox pops

Nurses have greater autonomy in aged care but more accountability for money is needed

After 40 years in aged care nursing, Lucille McKenna is still enthusiastic and still has a sense of humour – a crucial ingredient in the makeup of any aged care nurse, she says.

As a Director of Nursing, Lucille is familiar with the joys and challenges of aged care nursing, and also with what is needed to attract and retain more staff.

‘Every day is different; you never know what the day will hold,’ she said.

‘An advantage of aged care nursing is greater autonomy for RNs. There’s not the same debilitating bureaucracy as in the hospitals.

‘In terms of problems facing the sector, it all comes back to accountability: accountability for the money that is spent, for the care that is given, and for the working conditions of the staff. The continual dumbing down of the skills mix, with fewer and fewer registered nurses, is a real issue. RNs want to work where they can do their job, and they can’t do their job when they have to care for 150 residents.

‘Another issue is corporatisation. When I began my career, aged care was a cottage industry; nursing homes were mostly owned by local families, or sometimes by one of the doctors or nurses. Now it is a big industry, with many publicly-listed companies owning nursing homes. But nursing homes should not be run in the interest of shareholders and, on a government level, I believe the government needs to listen more to those who actually work in aged care,’ said Lucille.

Lack of public awareness about aged care

Anne Catley has worked as an RN in aged care facilities since she came to Australia from England when she was 24. Even after nearly 40 years in aged care, Anne still loves her work. ‘You meet some fantastic characters, some really gorgeous old people,’ she said.

However, Anne is worried about the ageing nurse population in aged care. ‘Most of the RNs are in their 50s or 60s,’ she said.

Anne suggests that aged care nursing should be included in university nursing curriculums, and she says that pay and working conditions must improve if younger nurses are going to work in aged care.

Anne is also concerned about the lack of public awareness of what aged care nursing is.

‘People want the best for their parents, but until they are put in that position, the public do not realise the care involved in looking after the aged,’ she said.

Nursing more attractive with increased pay

Greg Storm, 34, is an AiN at Booroongen Djugan Aboriginal Nursing Home, Kempsey. Before making a career change eight years ago, Greg worked as a sand-blaster, but he finds nursing more rewarding, and enjoys the employment stability it provides.

‘It’s lovely when somebody from the community picks you out from a crowd and says hello. Families really appreciate the work we do,’ he said.

Greg has three young sons, so he also appreciates the flexible hours aged care nursing allows him.

‘My better half is a nurse at Booroongen Djugan, too. Before the boys began primary school we just used to see each other at the nursing home gate, but now we often do shifts together, which is great,’ he said.

Greg suggests the best way to attract more men to the nursing profession is to increase the pay. ‘If the pay rate was a bit better, more people – men and women – would be more likely to consider aged care nursing,’ he said.