Caring for Aboriginal Elders in the Pilbara
Originally from Victoria, this is Katrina Galley’s second stint in the Pilbara. They say the red dirt gets into your veins, and calls you back.
Galley is CEO of EPIS, the leading provider of aged-care and respite services in the Inland Pilbara and Western Desert, Western Australia.
EPIS delivers a range of support services to the frail and aged, people with disabilities or long-term chronic medical conditions and their carers across a vast geographical area, with day centres in Newman, Marble Bar and Tom Price. Currently EPIS has around 200 clients.
The provider — which recently won the national Organisation Award in Leading Age Services Australia’s Excellence in Age Services Awards 2019 — was established 23 years ago in Newman, a BHP iron ore mining town.
With the 7000-plus population of Newman largely made up of young people and families working the mines, including thousands of fly-in fly-out workers, those in need of disability and aged-care services are mostly the local Indigenous people.
Most are Martu — some of the last Indigenous people to come out of the desert and make contact with European Australians in the 1950s and 1960s — who tend to live on the outskirts of town. Many still live a nomadic existence, making providing quality health care and continuity of care a challenge.
“We drive from our day centres every day to Community, to collect our clients. They tend to have very basic living conditions, so we provide them with social support, personal care, laundry, domestic assistance, nutritious food and medical care,” said Galley.
“Our mission is to enable and encourage positive ageing and wellbeing, so what we do is about supporting a healthy lifestyle within the context of individualised care.”
Indigenous people tend to have more comorbidities than non-Indigenous Australians, and many deteriorate at an earlier age, with most EPIS clients aged in their 50s.
Supporting their clients with the right medical care, and helping them to care for themselves, is an important part of their work. Common conditions are diabetes, skin conditions, heart problems and issues with wound management.
At the largest day centre in Newman, there is a team of three nursing staff led by Senior Clinical Registered Nurse Julie Hughes (who also happens to be from Victoria). The other two centres are able to access nursing care through local medical services, with nurses from Newman visiting every couple of months. The EPIS Newman complex has a respite house with seven beds so that community members including the Martu people can stay overnight for help with medication, medical appointments or other needs including having a break.
EPIS also works in conjunction with the Aboriginal Medical Services to provide the best level of support possible, and all EPIS staff are given Certificate III training in individual support.
“Assessing our clients’ medical needs and ensuring they are compliant with medication or get the right medical or allied health care are important services, particularly before they go back to Country,” Galley explained.
“Sometimes a client will be with us for just one to three days, and then go away with their family for two to six months, especially around this time of year when they start Lore, where elders teach children about their traditions and culture.”
Being mindful and respectful, and supportive of Indigenous culture, means many things. Certain people can’t be in the same room as each other, such as a son-in-law with his mother-in-law. Daily activities often involve the outdoors, where clients enjoy participating in catching and cooking animals such as kangaroo and goanna, sourcing bush medicine and bush tucker, and making damper. Clients enjoy continuing the tradition of making bush medicine, by collecting the bark from certain trees and using it to make an ash powder.
In Newman, EPIS partners with Martumili Artists, giving clients an opportunity to create Aboriginal art in their desert home (Martumili Artists sell art on their website: www.martumili.com.au).
Respite for clients and carers is also centred on culture. Respite tours often involve three-to-four-day fishing trips to Port Hedland from Newman, while the crew from Marble Bar enjoy fishing in the rivers when they are flowing and catching goanna.
“Most clients want to go to Country or fishing, so we take our swags, our camper trailer, cooks, nurses, and away we go. The trips aren’t limited to the more or less frail, we take everyone who wants to go, because it’s very important for Indigenous people to connect with the land,” Galley said.
“Supporting quality of life is part of what we do.”
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