Anger grows over aged care neglect

Substandard aged care is in the media spotlight and the public is getting our message about the need for safe staffing laws. Now, a Royal Commission into the sector looms.   

Australians have reacted with horror and anger to media exposure of poor treatment of the elderly in understaffed nursing homes.

A Four Corners television special last month was the result of the ABC’s biggest crowd sourced investigation. More than 4,000 people – including 1300 current and former aged care staff – responded to a request to share their experiences.

Presenter Sarah Ferguson said the program heard many “every day stories of neglect and inattention, poor quality food, lack of personal care, boredom and heart-breaking loneliness”.

There were disturbing accounts of overworked staff and neglected residents.

Hidden camera footage revealed an elderly woman routinely left in a soiled bed for hours on end.

Staff condemned the widespread practice of rationing continence pads to three-a-day – and keeping them under lock and key in order to save money.

Personal care assistant (PCA) Tanya Bosch described aged care as “very confronting and distressing work. It was really frustrating to know that on a daily basis, you were failing to meet the needs of some of the most vulnerable people in our society”.

PCA Melanie Whiteley said she was speaking to Four Corners “because the truth about aged care needs to come out, so it can change”.

“I think families think that they’re getting their loved one looked after. I think that they think that they’re paying for that to happen, and in reality, it’s just not. It can’t happen. There’s not enough staff,” she said.

Facility manager and clinical consultant Tony Northcote said: “I believe our elderly deserve to have better care. We’re going the other way at the moment, we’re reducing the number of skilled staff and increasing the number of unskilled carers.”

One RN and one EN to 72 residents

Enrolled nurse Katrina Legzdins said she and a registered nurse were in charge of 72 residents.

“There’s no ratio, I guess, for number of staff to residents, so they can just get away with bare bones, bare minimum.”

Also interviewed was Sean Rooney, CEO of Leading Age Services Australia, the peak body representing private and not-for-profit nursing homes.

He rejected staffing ratios as “a very blunt instrument” and defended nursing homes spending just $6 a day per resident on food and giving staff five to six minutes on average to get somebody out of bed, toileted, showered and dressed.

Four Corners’ Facebook page drew more than 600 comments in the three days following the program. Many were scornful of Rooney’s suggestion that $6 per day was enough to feed people with “a low nutrition requirement”.

A typical comment read: “Angry and extreme sadness is what I’m feeling after watching this. ‘Older people have a lower nutritional requirement.’ Well, Shaun Rooney let’s see if YOU can stomach some of the muck that is being served up.”

Another wrote: “To say that the elderly don’t require nutritious food is just beyond ridiculous. These residents are people. Food should be a pleasure and a joy for them.”

More than 36,600 viewers voted in a Four Corners online poll in the same period. Ninety-seven per cent said minimum staff to resident ratios should be enforced in aged care facilities.

A day before the program went to air, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a Royal Commission into the sector.

However, a Royal Commission will do nothing to fix the crisis in aged care unless the government introduces mandated staffing ratios urgently, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) said.

“Every day that the government fails to act on dangerous understaffing in nursing homes is another day that vulnerable residents are still at risk,” ANMF Federal Secretary Annie Butler said.

“While the current aged care crisis clearly warrants a Royal Commission, we know what the problems are. We have two decades of reports and inquiries outlining the problems. It’s time to take action. Let’s start by introducing a safe staffing law.”

‘I wouldn’t put a sick dog in some of these places’

Aged care registered nurse Maree Wiseman hopes media exposure and the forthcoming Royal Commission will finally force the government to act to improve staffing of nursing homes.

“It was horrifying to see how those residents were being treated – I wouldn’t put a sick dog in some of these places,” she said.

“Congratulations to Four Corners and the staff and families who had the courage to speak out.”

Maree works at a community-owned nursing home in northern NSW. She says most staff members watched the program and many are worried it will contribute to a public backlash against nursing home employees.

“The union needs to continue its campaigning to make the public aware that the fault lies with owners and administrators who fail to provide enough staff.

“We all know more staff are needed to achieve a better working environment that allows us to provide high quality care.”

Maree hopes the Royal Commission will recommend mandatory staffing ratios and employment of more registered nurses. 

“There have been plenty of inquiries and the government has done nothing so far – maybe the Royal Commission will make a difference.”

Unusually, her facility currently has a few empty beds. That has given carers more time to sit and talk with residents including some who never get family visits.

“A couple of the team have even had time to take residents for a walk. That’s something that should happen every day.”

Watch the Four Corners special on aged care:

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