Nearly 40 years ago, my relatively young mother had to go to a residential aged-care facility. With multiple sclerosis robbing her of the body that worked and leaving her bedridden, it was no longer safe for her to live at home. Her nursing home was full of wonderful, dedicated staff who cared for her and their other patients. There were several registered nurses on every shift, enrolled nurses and occupational therapists. But my sister and I still made sure we went every day to help feed her and make sure she was comfortable, because, when we helped by volunteering, it meant that others were assisted more quickly, especially at mealtimes.
But let's fast forward to now. Twenty-two reports and the aged-care royal commissioners have told us that the system is broken. Too many aged-care residents are malnourished. Does the government realise what that means for our elderly? Our most vulnerable are starving. Let that sink in for a moment.
In this circumstance, how can there be so little action to fix the system which is tasked to look after our aged population when they can no longer safely stay at home? These residents are people who saw through the worst of the Great Depression, world wars and financial crises. They are our beloved grandparents or parents, and the government has left them languishing, ignoring report after report, until we find ourselves here in the current crisis. And they all deserve so much better.
These reports have detailed solutions. Yet, rather than there being change for the better, the situation has just got worse, however much money is spent. The government points to how much money they've put into the system, but then why, under this government's watch, has nothing changed?
There have been more than 600 deaths in aged care just this year, and it's not even the end of February. Again, aged-care residents were not prioritised in the rollout of booster vaccinations. Lockdowns have been difficult for all of us, but just take a moment to consider what they've been like if you've been a resident in aged care. The vaccines were slow and there are many who still have not had their booster shots. They've spent countless days isolating in their rooms, probably terrified of what will happen next, with personal care limited at best. Not only does this directly affect their physical and mental health, but it has robbed so many of spending their final days with their loved ones.
Recently there have been comments in the media that you only go into aged care because you're going to die, and whilst for many, many people this isn't the case, it is, however, all the more reason to make sure that those final days, months or years are as comfortable as possible. You should not be tortured with a lack of food or stimulation, or by not having wounds treated properly or not even being able to see the ones you love.
I've spoken to many aged-care workers over the last few years. They are dedicated and caring, and they do what they do because they know there is a need and they just love the residents they work with. It is certainly not for the money, because they average $22 an hour, and many have to work multiple jobs and split shifts just to pay the bills. But they continue to prop up this system in crisis, because they have a conscience and don't want to let anyone down. Clearly, it's unreasonable to keep looking to their good nature. With 140,000 shifts in aged care not filled, the 17,000 defence personnel, although welcome, will hardly make a dent and are not a sustainable solution. While the Prime Minister's promise of an $800 payment goes some way towards recognising just how much these workers have borne the brunt of the dysfunctional system and the stresses of the pandemic, it's a one-off payment, and not nearly enough and not soon enough.
The government must find solutions now as we enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Aged care remains in crisis. More than 12,000 aged-care residents and workers currently have COVID, in more than 1,100 aged-care homes. If rapid antigen tests were available and free to staff and visitors, many of these outbreaks might not have occurred. Too many aged-care residents are still waiting for the COVID-19 booster dose. Aged-care homes have been left with insufficient personal protective equipment and shortages of RATs. Older Australians deserve to be treated so much better, and it's time the government did just that.