Richard Hearn is dedicated to encouraging positive images of aged care, the importance of this good work and the active contributions of seniors, he tells Natasha Egan.

The decision to leave Resthaven after 34 years was made “with a bit of ambivalence” rather than ease or difficulty, says Richard Hearn. “It was inevitable at some stage, whilst a huge part of my life,” Hearn tells Australian Ageing Agenda.

He became chief executive officer of the South Australian aged care and retirement living provider 26 years ago. “I have never felt the need to consider working elsewhere to fulfil similar aspirations. I felt supported by the boards I have served, executives and staff,” Hearn says.

However, now, in his 65th year of life, he says the time is right and reflects a natural course of things considered with succession.

“There was a realisation that it is time for someone new to be in this role moving forward. Also this is the appropriate time for me to leave.”

Hearn is reluctant to highlight personal achievements during his tenure because he credits everyone at the organisation – from the board and executives to the staff and volunteers – for making Resthaven what it is and has been.

Resthaven, which is associated with the Uniting Church in Australia, is one of South Australia’s largest aged care providers. It has more than 2,500 employees and around 500 volunteers. The provider supports 10,000 older people and their carers in their own homes and in Resthaven’s 12 aged care homes and six retirement living complexes.

Since Hearn joined Resthaven, the organisation has grown and diversified geographically and into new service types including home, community and restorative services and locations, and quadrupled the number of employees.

“I have found it difficult to put myself as the cause of those outcomes,” says Hearn. “I’ve been fortunate to have been a part of the growth of the organisation, working with incredibly talented and dedicated people who remain committed to those in our care day to day.”

Throughout the decades Hearn says he has maintained a sustained focus on improving the quality of Resthaven’s services to benefit the individuals they serve and responding to community expectations. As the opportunity, need and demand grew, the organisation extended the range of its services and began offering more service choice and in a wider range of locations, says Hearn.

“I and our team have and continue to seek to encourage positive images of aged care and the active and meaningful contributions of older individuals to our community. Resthaven continues to challenge negative stereotypes, generalisations and showcase the positive aspects of working in aged care.”

He says the organisation’s early move into aged care in the home, building on day therapy services support, is one of the organisation’s achievements he’s particularly proud of.

“Just before I became CEO in 1994, we had started to look more closely at home care in its beginning stages as a federal program offering. We had targeted the importance of staying home,” he says. He is equally proud of the significance of residential aged care when required,  the significant improvements in the building standards, and the higher care standards that have evolved as individuals enter with  greater frailty.

“Another area of importance as an organisation, is we have seen ourselves as a part of the important role of the not-for-profit sector  and aged care sector at large. We have engaged in industry processes and committees and boards to collectively advocate for improvements available to older individuals when and where their need may arise and the sustainability of such choice being available.”

These industry engagements include with the UnitingCare Australia and its aged care network, sector peak for NFP providers Aged and Community Services Australia, the SA Innovation Hub. The hub launched in 2014 with a diversity of provider members including Resthaven, and the community care association in the early 2000s.

“Our engagement with the sector and networking between providers has been a big part of us,” Hearn says. So has taking leadership in areas such as advancing the nurse practitioner role, says Hearn. Even though it hasn’t progressed as far as he hoped nine years ago.

“That has been affected by the very limited Medicare Benefits Schedule rebate for nurse practitioners. But we have been very happy for the outcomes we have,” he says.

In 2011, Resthaven employed its inaugural nurse practitioner Peter Jenkin, a palliative care specialist, who was the only specialist nurse practitioner employed by an aged care provider at the time.

“It is important we continue to see that access to nurse practitioners more available in aged care  working collaboratively with general practitioners towards best outcomes for individuals,” says Hearn.

Another source of pride for Hearn is the organisation’s six-year education and information sharing relationship with Baan Sudthavas Foundation, a Buddhist influenced aged care group in Bangkok, Thailand. Despite their different backgrounds, the two organisations share a common not-for-profit community purpose, says Hearn.

Hearn’s journey of late has been focused on the NFP sector, which is an important area of the community for him. Within the NFP sector, he sees great importance in the role of the board and the relationship between directors and the CEO and management team working towards a common purpose.

Before that, Hearn’s first career was in education. It involved a combination of teaching and social work including counselling. “I was a qualified primary school teacher and worked in high school. Obviously there is a theme of me working with people,” he says.

Hearn likes and respects his colleagues present and past and the people he and his team work for. He says it is a privilege to support the people who invite Resthaven to care for them.

“There are people in our community who get to a stage where they are not as independent and at that time to maintain quality of life they will depend on services. It is important their needs are met. I see that as an important and worthy area to be working in,” he says.

He would like to be able to do more and determine where to access the resources to be able to do that. It is a big topic. Like the several big topics the aged care royal commission has been covering, says Hearn. But they haven’t covered all the big topics yet such as “the increase in budget required.”   

Hearn appeared as a witness for the royal commission on a workforce panel at a hearing in October. Based on that experience, he says he appreciated how they facilitated a good discussion and exploration on the topic.

On workforce, Hearn supports the need and work to build a sector that is attractive to workers. This includes creating environments where nurses can use their expertise and continue to benefit the sector as leaders and clinicians.

He’s also in favour of the registration of direct care workers, whilst ensuring such a process attracts and allows individuals who, seek to join the sector in mid life can acquire qualifications to complement their valued life experiences.

“I want to see an emphasis on attracting as many good people who are skilled as we can.”

Resthaven president Mark Porter and Richard Hearn cutting the cake commemorating the organisation’s 85 years of service.

Hearn finishes up as CEO at the end of May 2020, but will stick around until the end of June.

He says he will miss the people and the daily interactions with staff and volunteers, who share his purpose and desire of working with older individuals when they need help.

“I value working collegiately with others in the sector who have a kindred spirit and common purpose, locally and nationally, whether in service provision, as advocates or in regulatory roles, with a shared desire to improve options and quality for older individuals at their time of need.”

While leaving Resthaven, Hearn says he is not retiring from life. He will continue his volunteering with the St Vincent de Paul and will consider opportunities as they arise.

“I want to be involved in some capacities in working with people and offering a positive contribution to that as a service and as an activity I enjoy.”

Main image: Richard Hearn.

This article first appeared in Australian Ageing Agenda magazine (May-Jun 2020).

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