Beyond storage: putting the spirit back into aged care

Warehousing. When I first began working in the area of ageing and spirituality nearly 10…

Warehousing. When I first began working in the area of ageing and spirituality nearly 10 years ago, this was the term that Professor Elizabeth MacKinlay used to describe residential aged care.

At the time it seemed extreme, provocative even, but it stuck with me. As the work of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety unfolds, ‘warehousing’ no longer seems so farfetched. Indeed the interim report speaks of aged care services being ‘out of sight and out of mind’ – just like a warehouse.

The language we’ve been using gives us away: we no longer aspire to provide aged care homes, we have aged care facilities – alongside waste management facilities, and correctional and detention facilities. Relationships between our frail elders and their carers are described in depersonalised, transactional terms – as consumers and providers.

Matrons have become managers. Everyday necessities are calculated and counted like products coming off the assembly line – the commission has documented instances where incontinence pads are rationed. Practices such as the physical and chemical restraint are so common that they had been normalised. Documentation and compliance have become the key focus of the most qualified staff, leaving no time for innovation, or even, it seems, for humanity.

Facilities are thinly staffed, staff are poorly paid and undervalued. We are already experimenting with the use of robots to provide ‘companionship’ – a shocking perversion of the Latin origins of the word ‘companion’ (cum ‘together with’, panis ‘bread’) – someone who breaks bread with you. Bread, in fact, is itself scarce, with malnutrition widespread.

As the media release accompanying the Interim Report suggests, the aged care system is ‘a shocking tale of neglect’, one that ‘diminishes Australia as a nation.’ Interestingly the release uses the word ‘dispiriting’ to describe the nature of residential care. What a pertinent choice. Taking the spirit out of human life – despiriting – is an exact description of the end result of a system of neglect. Our frail older citizens are in danger of becoming no more than bodies stored in a warehouse. So how do we put the spirit back?

Putting the spirit back into aged care is about more than funding. Alongside the very necessary advocacy we must do at a political level, there is an urgent need for a grassroots revolution – to turn around our devaluing of older Australians. There is much we can do: resist the story of ‘burden’ around ageing (yes, even over the weekend BBQ); actively model respect for our frail elders (yes, even our mother-in-law); build opportunities for cross-generational encounter (even, dare I say, friendship); and subvert the language of the warehouse (person, not consumer — always.) On with the revolution!

About the author

Jane Foulcher is Deputy Director of St Mark’s National Theological Centre and Senior Lecturer in Theology at Charles Sturt University. She researches on human personhood, trauma, and flourishing. Charles Sturt University offers a postgraduate program on Ageing and Pastoral Studies.

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