Above: Aged care advocate, media personality and MC of the night, Ita Butrose with newly retired CEO of Southern Cross Care NSW and ACT, John Ireland
By Yasmin Noone
Aged care advocate and newly retired CEO of Southern Cross Care NSW and ACT, John Ireland, has been rewarded for a career characterised by a passion for older vulnerable adults and a persistence to change the world in which we live, albeit for the better.
Amidst a roar of cheers and a loud round of applause, Mr Ireland was presented with the coveted HESTA & Aged and Community Services Australia (ACSA) Aged Care ‘Individual Award’ during an evening ceremony at Sydney’s prestigious Ivy Room yesterday.
The award’s judges chose Mr Ireland from a list of finalists because of his deep commitment to the care of older people and guiding leadership throughout an aged care career that spans more than 35 years.
Mr Ireland told AAA he felt incredibly privileged and humbled to receive the top honour, which, he said, also belongs to everyone he has worked with in the past.
“The two feelings are intermingled,” Mr Ireland said.
“First of all, I wouldn’t be human if I wasn’t honoured. I’m delighted.
“Secondly, and equally as strong, I feel very humble as there are so many people doing great things in aged care that deserve recognition and acknowledgement.
“A lot of these things in life are to do with being in the right place at the right time. I was lucky enough to get the job at Southern Cross.”
Mr Ireland, who retired from his 23-year post at Southern Cross Care NSW & ACT four weeks ago, recalled his time at the organisation.
“The organisation was virtually on the brink of bust [when I became CEO].
“It had seven little facilities and was literally bankrupt so [when I stepped in], there was an opportunity to build an organisation.”
In 1988, he explained, Southern Cross Care NSW & ACT cared for about 500 older people and had 70 staff. Now, the brand is located in 35 locations, looks after 3,000 seniors and employs around 1,500 staff.
“We also went from having one third of our places [dedicated to] poorer people to having 73 per cent now.
“Every one of our care facilities and community care programs is available to the next person that knocks on their door, regardless of their circumstance. And we are able to sustain that.”
Mr Ireland remains just as passionate about the care of vulnerable, disadvantaged and marginalised people today, as he did when he first volunteered in the sector many years ago.
“The big thing is that older people are the most valued in the community, in my view, and should be considered the most valuable. They, along with kids, are also the most vulnerable. That is particularly true for those who are marginalised and disadvantaged.
“The market doesn’t provide for those people and the government has so many increasingly genuine demands on it and a diminishing tax base so somebody has to be ready to assist those people.”
The mantra that has guided him, and indeed the organisation he led for so many years, he said, is: “the more business like you are, the more charitable you can be”.
“So one of the main things we acknowledged was [the need] to build a very strong business-like base for [Southern Cross Care], which is then able to translate into services for those who are disadvantaged.”
Mr Ireland also served a stint as treasurer and president of ACSA during his time as CEO of Southern Cross Care. With so much experience and concern for the welfare of older Australians, Mr Ireland passed on a few pearls of wisdom to those occupying leadership roles and others working at the coalface of aged care.
The most important skills an aged care employee can learn and practice is “listening, hearing and responding”.
“It’s alright to listen to older people but you really have to hear what they say and respond to how they see the world.
“There’s often a tendency for us to know what others want and need and it’s not true. When I went to Southern Cross, I was only 43/44 years old. I thought ‘I just don’t know what it’s like to be 70’. Now, at 67, I don’t know what it’s like to be 80 years old although I have a much better idea now than when I was in my 40s.
Finally, Mr Ireland urged sector staff to remember the reason why they entered aged care in the first place, keep the fire of hope burning and to always put older people at the centre of everything they do.
“Remain passionate about those whose life’s journey has caused them to be disadvantaged.
“Don’t forget about the poor. Don’t forget the vulnerable. It’s easy to run an organisation with a black bottom line and work alone the eastern seaboard. You could forget about them and become comfortable middle class. We mustn’t forget.”
Mr Ireland said although he is retired he would still like to be involved in the sector part-time. However, this time around his involvement will be by “invitation not application”.