Defence personnel have been life-changing and a “godsend” helping staff and residents, aged care home representatives have told their counterparts in a national webinar promoting the short-term service.

Provider peak bodies Leading Age Services Australia and Aged and Community Services Australia and the health department hosted a webinar on Monday to give providers details and answer questions on the available Australian Defence Force support, which is now in its third week.

“We in the defence force are very keen to help you as best we can,” Deputy Commander Brigadier Brendan Casey of the Australian Defence Force told the webinar. “You just ask for what you need, and we’ll sort out how we can provide that to you.” The ADF will meet or exceed the expectations of the facility, he said.

The ADF has been enlisted to supply clinical and non-clinical teams that can supplement existing Commonwealth workforce surge measures to assist facilities with clinical care, logistics and general duties tasks. Up to 1,700 defence force personnel will be deployed to support staff in residential aged care over eight weeks.

The ADF “aged care assist” support includes:

  • 10 independent medical teams with five nurses (1 RN and 4 ENs) and five general duties personnel to support the nurses
  • 14 smaller augmentation teams with three nurses
  • 200 general duties personnel per jurisdiction to support in non-direct care functions such as resident companionship, meal delivery, cleaning, screening, administration and logistics.

Brigadier Casey said the general duties personnel have received training on what to expect and how to help in aged care homes and all nurses are fully qualified and highly skilled. “Anything you would use your RNs or your enrolled nurses for in your facility, you can use our ADF clinicians for,” he said.

Australian Army officer Captain Chanel Aguilar (left) assists Lisa Morgan conduct administration at Tununda Lutheran Home in South Australia

‘Nothing but praise’

Dorothy Impey Home CEO Heather Gray has “nothing but praise” for the “five beautiful people” from the Air Force (two) and Navy (three) deployed at the home.

“Our lives just turned upside down,” she said after the outbreak began. But “when we had these tall, beautiful people come into our home, our life was changed. Sorry if I cry, but it was,” Ms Gray told the webinar. “When they walked in the door, I thought what are we going to do? But they just took over and our residents took over.”

Ms Gray said the defence personnel have “been doing a wonderful job making our beds” putting “the linen away” and helping residents however they can.

“Our lifestyle coordinator Lucy takes residents out for a walk each day and she was knocked back in favour of these beautiful tall young guys,” she said. “We’ve had nothing but praise and the residents are so different. You didn’t realise what they were going through before because they never said anything. And now it’s coming out what they did actually go through.”

She encouraged other providers to take up the service. “If you have a chance, please take up this offer because it’s the most wonderful, wonderful offer that you could possibly experience. We just loved it,” Ms Gray said. “It’s injected us with just so much newness, so much enthusiasm.”

Clinical care coordinator Chloe Shields provides an induction brief to Royal Australian Navy and Air Force members in preparation for their support work at an aged care facility in Victoria

‘A godsend’

Mercedes Benjamin, who is manager of ethnic-specific home Coptic Village Hostel, is equally pleased about the general duties support they received saying “the ADF crew was a godsend”.

This is despite some reservations early on about people in military uniforms working in the home because due to the cohort of residents, “when you mention ADF or army, then everybody’s pulses go up,” she said.

Ms Benjamin said they allayed staff and residents’ fears by communicating what was going to happen and “fortunately” the blue PPE gown covered up the uniforms and the Air Force and Navy personnel “just blended in with all of our staff.”

She said the defence members provided a wide range of support including assisting staff with logistics, maintenance and care activities.

“One of the tasks we focused on was the physiotherapy when staff have to walk behind the physio therapist with a wheelchair. You can imagine that that takes time off the floor, or time off caring for the residents. So with the crew member going in there and doing that task for us really impressed the staff because they could go on with the caring for the residents with more complex needs.”

Australian Army soldier Private Bailey Furness (left) shares a laugh with Mr Brian Sellwood at Tanunda Lutheran home

Defence staff also assembled shelves and cupboards to provide more space for lifestyle activities and spent time talking to and keeping residents company.

“It wasn’t just a small chat of how are you, how old are you and how many grandchildren you have. But it was meaningful discussions, how are you feeling?” It got to the point that residents were asking when the defence members were coming to provide support in their wing “so that was a very, very positive one,” Ms Benjamin said.

She said the defence member also rose to the challenge of learning how to “shadow” and “watch with dignity” residents experiencing challenging behaviours. “I’ve got nothing but praise for them, I take my hat off to them.”

Providers should contact state case manager for support

Australian Army nurses Lance Corporal Reeana Davies (left) and Private Cody Hitchcock from 11th Close Health Company at an aged-care facility in Queensland

Department of Health first assistant secretary COVID-19 outbreak response Nicole Jarvis said the ADF deployments are intended to provide additional surge workforce for short periods of time, not replace the existing workforce. “The ADF is not looking to replace skilled aged care workers,” she told the webinar.

The service is available to aged care homes where there’s an exposure or an outbreak, with outbreak sites taking priority. “My takeaway here is if … you feel like your facility could benefit from an ADF team, please get in contact with your Commonwealth case management team in your jurisdiction,” Ms Jarvis said.

After receiving a request, the Department of Health provides the ADF guidance on what support is best suited to the facility and the ADF will organise and deploy teams of whatever configuration is required.

“We commit to within 48 hours of receiving the requests, we’ll have those people at the facility,” Brigadier Casey said. “They are available for as long as they’re required.”

The initial deployment for medical and general duties teams is one and two weeks respectively, but facilities can request an extension as per requirements, Brigadier Casey said.

“I think you’ll find the defence force are a very good bunch of people and well-trained, well-disciplined and keen to support the residential aged care facilities through the Department of Health,” he said. “At the moment we have available medical teams and general duties [personnel]. So we’re ready; we’re good to go.”

Watch a recording of the webinar:

Main image: Australian Army nurse Corporal Ryan Sulcas (right) with Ms Glenys Sellwood at Tanunda Lutheran Home in South Australia

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