Addressing the unique allied health needs of those in residential aged care
The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety is nearing its end. With 124 recommendations tabled for discussion by the Commission in November of last year, the final report is due in February 2021. So what will we see in the final recommendations, and how can we work within those recommendations in order to ensure safe and high-quality care for our older Australians?
2020 presented a unique set of circumstances for older Australians living in residential aged-care facilities and accessing in-home aged care. The pandemic has highlighted the challenges in staying connected with our loved ones, and it’s shown us the hard work and commitment of nursing and care staff working in the aged-care industry.
Early in the year we saw the devastating effects of an outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in Newmarch House in Western Sydney. Staff scrambled to source PPE and organise testing equipment, while family members desperately tried to contact their loved ones — staff members risked their lives every time they turned up for a shift. Until 2019, Newmarch House was my grandmother’s home. She was loved and cared for by staff with an overwhelming sense of compassion and duty — many of the same staff who faced the April outbreak. Our family is eternally grateful for the care they showed our beloved matriarch in her twilight years.
These staff didn’t just show their mettle during the outbreak, but I have firsthand experience of their skill and dedication over several years of knowing them. They love their work and care deeply for each person to whom they offer support. But the Royal Commission has shown us that the system in which they work is no longer fit for purpose, and we require changes in legislation, policy and community attitude towards the duty of care we have for our elders. We owe it to our elders and these workers.
The Interim Recommendations have started to spell out these needs and practical strategies to address them. For a start, we need to recognise the individual needs of each person in aged care, and to be able to attract and retain a workforce that is appropriately remunerated, trained and valued. The Royal Commission’s recommendation for the establishment of an independent Aged Care Commission could go a long way to achieving these goals.
We also need to recognise the changing demographics of our nation. We are an ageing population, and we need to be proactive and creative in supporting ageing Australians as they comprise a larger and larger portion of our people. The traditional model of residential care is becoming more and more difficult to staff and administer. With a different approach — one that keeps people in their own homes for as long as possible, remaining active in their communities — we can potentially reduce the burden on an overstrained system.
Allied health professionals have an important part to play in such a system. Our unique value-add is not necessarily nursing people through illness or ageing, and it’s not administering vaccines or medicines. It’s helping people to improve or maintain quality of life. This should be a key part of our aged-care system — physiotherapists keeping people mobile; occupational therapists enabling people to cook, wash and clean independently for longer; and speech pathologists helping people to stay connected with social circles and family.
Overall, what is needed (and what seems likely based on the Interim Report) is better dialogue between the consumer and the provider, and safeguards to ensure a high quality of care and control for older people and their families. We need to make better use of our allied health professionals as people who can help keep our family members independent and engaged in community for longer.
When the Final Report is handed down, we may look forward to the establishment of an Aged Care Commission, which is an excellent chance for us to reimagine our aged-care system as an efficient, person-centred and well-respected industry that recognises the value of allied health in its ongoing effectiveness in the context of an ageing population.
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