Opinion: rising tide calls for stronger focus

It is often said the true measure of a society is found in how it treats its most vulnerable members. Older Australians, particularly those who require support, fall squarely into this category, says Leading Aged Care Service CEO Sean Rooney.

It is often said the true measure of a society is found in how it treats its most vulnerable members. Older Australians, particularly those who require support, fall squarely into this category, writes Sean Rooney.

More than 1.3 million older Australians receive some form of aged care service today including nearly 240,000 in permanent residential aged care each year. With around 2,000 Australians turning 65 every week, and a further 1,000 turning 85, the demand for care and support is increasing rapidly.

So how well are we coping as a nation and how are we placed to meet this rising tide of demand?  The answer gives rise to the need for a much stronger focus on making our aged care system better.

LASA CEO Sean Rooney
Sean Rooney

There is currently a mismatch between the needs and expectations of older Australians and the wider community, and services aged care providers are currently funded to provide. A recent PwC report estimated on current projections an additional 226,000 residential aged care places may be required by 2040 at a capital cost of just under $50 billion. However, over recent years, successive Australian Governments have reduced residential aged care funding by an estimated $3 billion.

Independent analysis estimates that 43 per cent of Australia’s residential aged care facilities in 2018 are operating at a loss. The situation is even more dire in regional and rural areas where three in every five facilities are in the red.

This is clearly not sustainable. There are also around 110,000 older Australians waiting in the national queue for home care services. These are people who have been assessed as requiring care at home, but who currently don’t receive the level of support recommended, or even worse don’t get any care at all.

The community, largely shaped by personal experience, is acutely attuned to the present and looming challenges of providing aged care services for a growing cohort. The recent Committee for Economic Development Australia’s ‘Community Pulse’ report found ‘high quality and choice of aged care services’ ranked third in the top five critical paths for the nation in the minds of Australians. Yet the ‘Senior Australians and Aged Care’ portfolio remains relegated to the ranks of the outer Ministry.

Encouraging signs, but just one step

There have been encouraging signs this week that the Government under new Prime Mnister Scott Morrison is awake to these community sensitivities. A sprinkling of new funding has been provided to support criticial workforce reforms and a new quality framework, and support to better resource residential aged care providers has been accelerated.

While welcomed positively by the industry, these measures must be seen as but a single step towards a much needed sustainable aged care funding strategy which considers all public and private funding levers going forward.

Such a strategy must ensure that subsidies keep pace with rising costs in both residential care and home care, whilst also bringing forward a solution to address the home care waiting list. The most fundamental component of any care-based system is its workforce.

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days week, around 360,000 staff in over 3,000 residential care, home care and home support organisations deliver care, support, services and accommodation to more than a million older Australians. There are occasional failures that are quite properly the subject of investigation and sanction, but overwhelmingly aged care workers do a very good job which is something our industry is immensely proud of. Adequate funding and support structures to better enable, develop and grow our aged care workforce, and implement optimal staffing models, must be part of an ongoing commitment from Government.

There is no greater challenge for older Australians and their families, the Australian Government and the age services industry in the next decade than the growing issues related to ageing and aged care. The community needs to be assured that Australia’s aged care system is appropriately supported to deliver accessible, affordable, quality care and services for all older Australians.

We urge our new Prime Minister and all members of Parliament to continue to work together to achieve this outcome.

Sean Rooney is the CEO of Leading Age Services Australia (LASA)

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