Surely we care about our elderly more than this?

THE collapse of the Gold Coast nursing home that put about 70 people on the streets like a litter of unwanted kittens was a brutal reminder of why we have a royal commission into aged care trundling around the nation.

The commission has been relatively low key, not because of idleness or lack

of meat on its investigative bones, but because we have long been aware of

the sort of infamies it is uncovering.

Cases such as that of 87-year-old Bertha Aalberts, who walked into a

Melbourne facility "cognisant and continent" but died exactly three months

later, are shocking but hardly surprising.

The multiple falls, untreated ulcers and skin infections that contributed to her

accelerated demise seem not uncommon in the outlands of the care industry.

The commission was told that her facility was home to 65 high-needs residents, but a registered nurse was on site for only about 7.5 hours from 7.30am every day.

That is less companionship and care than many struggling families manage to provide for their loved ones before conceding defeat.

Earle Haven aged care facility in Queensland’s Nerang went into administration and left many elderly residents temporarily without care. Picture: Jerad Williams/News Corp Australia
Earle Haven aged care facility in Queensland’s Nerang went into administration and left many elderly residents temporarily without care. Picture: Jerad Williams/News Corp Australia

And it is telling that it has taken the testimony of celebrity cook Maggie Beer to drive home the fact that a lack of specialist staff and budgets as low as $7 a day per person contribute to the dreadful, dispiriting food served to residents.

Late last year I found a study of more than 800 residences on behalf of the Dietitians' Association of Australia that found the average spend on "catering consumables" (including crockery and cutlery) was $8 per resident, but the amount on actual food was a lousy $6.08.

That's 136 per cent less than the $8.25 spent to feed a prison inmate.

If you've ever seen an aged care resident half-heartedly poking around a tepid, glutinous meal delivered at nursery hours you now know why.

The dietitians told the inquiry that an "older person, no matter their physical or cognitive capacity, has similar vitamin and mineral requirements to younger adults'', something that doesn't seem addressed by a few Cheerios and some frozen veges on a plastic plate.

People who were at the cutting edge of our national culinary revolution are now condemned to a diet of stodge.

Celebrity chef Maggie Beer has slammed the way our elderly residents are being fed. Picture: AAP/Marc McCormack
Celebrity chef Maggie Beer has slammed the way our elderly residents are being fed. Picture: AAP/Marc McCormack

Sadly, such stories of neglect, indignities and even cruelties inflicted on the elderly have become pretty much routine, culminating in the Four Corners report that ultimately led the government to call this inquiry.

They weigh heavily on the prospective residents of aged care facilities and the families who must make the heartbreaking decision to put their elderly kin in the care of others.

The inquiry's terms of reference are at once general and ponderously exhaustive.

The full terms can be found in the letters patent issued by the Governor General, but they are summed up by the commission itself as looking at "how older people are cared for and to work out what needs to change to make aged care services better".

It is the nature of the beast that submissions so far tend on the negative side, but the first question about how the elderly are cared for seems to be almost rhetoric.

The blunt answer is: Mostly adequately, sometimes excellently, too frequently appallingly.

The second question of what needs to be done is infinitely more confronting.

As bad as some facilities are, the sad fact is that we need more of them.

Residents of Earle Haven Nursing Home were forced to relocate after the facility was closed without warning. Picture: AAP/Tim Marsden
Residents of Earle Haven Nursing Home were forced to relocate after the facility was closed without warning. Picture: AAP/Tim Marsden

For example, the commission was told that the Cairns Region and Far North Queensland had just 1992 aged care beds to serve a population that includes more than 40,000 people over the age of 65.

Little wonder that people have to turn to brokers and consultants to find a room for granny.

It would be nice but impossible to divorce this from politics but some experts have sheeted the blame for this situation to the 1997 Aged Care Act that led to an increase in private investment without commensurate public oversight.

It is indisputable that the accreditation and day-to-day management of care facilities have been inadequately supervised and that the absence of adequately mandated staffing and experience levels has left our elders with less care than a preschooler receives.

Last year I concluded that it was time we stopped referring to it as aged care industry and started to treat it as a service and a duty to our elders.

If the commission comes to anywhere near the same conclusion it will present government with a huge collision of ideology and humane policy making.

Our parents and grandparents (and maybe you), are pinning their hopes on humanity.

Terry Sweetman is a columnist for RendezView.com.au



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