November 21, 2019 06:30:55
When Marta first started working in aged care, she used to take residents for walks in the park.
That was in the mid-1980s. Today, it’s a very different picture in Australia.
She says some of the residents she looks after only get to go outside a handful of times a year.
“Because they have no family, because we are too busy to take them out, even for a little walk,” she tells RN’s Late Night Live.
“It is very upsetting when we can’t provide the care they need and the care they deserve.”
Marta is one of almost 400,000 people employed in aged care in Australia — and many, like her, are speaking out over under-resourcing and under-staffing.
It comes amid the ongoing aged care royal commission, which has so far found the sector to be a “shocking tale of neglect” and drawn attention to its challenging working conditions.
But experts say some voices are still being overlooked — largely because of who most of the workers are: women and migrants.
Beds made ‘with soiled linen’
After over 30 years in different aged care facilities, Marta has amassed a number of horror stories.
“Sometimes there was no toilet paper, no bed linen. We have to make the bed with soiled bed linen or wet bed linen because there was no more bed linen provided for us,” she recalls of one place in Sydney.
“We have to bring our own toiletries so I used to carry my bag with my own toiletries to shower my residents.”
She also used to carry lollies and biscuits around in her pockets to give to residents who were “always starving”.
Marta recognises she and her colleagues can’t “provide the care that we really want to do, because we are multitasking all the time”.
“We start very early in the morning, and we have to do different things between things,” she says.
Are you worried about aged care in Australia?
It’s not uncommon: nine out of 10 aged care workers say they don’t have enough time to provide the requisite quality of care.
That’s according to a recent survey by Australian Community Research, commissioned by United Voice and the Health Services Union.
The study, which included responses from almost 5,000 workers, also found 94 per cent of staff think they don’t have enough time to talk to residents.
And almost 87 per cent of workers have to hurry people in their care because of their workloads.
“These sorts of figures that we’re seeing are across the board; there’s no exception to the rule and it’s just very disturbing,” says Gerard Hayes, secretary of the Health Services Union.
“They’re so under underfunded at this point in time that the resourcing isn’t there to be able to actually do the job, and also care for people.”
Marta, like many of her peers, is not immune from the emotional toll of working in aged care.
“We try to smile all the time, try to give them a card or give them a smile or give them a hug, but they can sense it,” she says.
“And there are so many residents who are very depressed because they feel so lonely.”
Mr Hayes says there’s a “psychological effect” on workers who treat their residents “as family members of very close friends”; people they see day-in-day-out.
“What Marta’s told you is just exactly what so many people will say to you … they take this strain, this pressure on themselves,” he says.
In the growing alarm over aged care conditions in Australia, voices like Marta’s can sometimes be overlooked.
Experts like Sarah Kaine say this is because the aged care workforce is primarily made up of women and migrants, whose perspectives are too-often ignored.
Dr Kaine, a lecturer in human resource management at the University of Technology Sydney, highlights the gendered nature of more invisible types of work, as is the case of aged care — where women constitute a staggering 90 per cent.
“We see this across the board — where women predominate in industries that tend to be lower paid,” she says.
“And there are various explanations as to why that’s the case. Is it because it’s care work? In which case we don’t value care work in the same way that we value other types of work.”
But she says that’s just one part of the picture.
“Another explanation is that because of the difficulties in organising workers, who are casualised, who are across so many workplaces,” Dr Kaine says.
“It’s not only residential age care, there’s services provided in-home as well.”
Low pay in aged care is particularly pronounced for female workers, Mr Hayes says.
“Another very concerning statistic is the fact that the average superannuation balance for women in aged care is $18,000,” he says.
“So they’re effectively working into their own areas of poverty.”
What can be done?
With the aged care royal commission’s final report due in November 2020, advocates say there’s a growing imperative for change in the sector.
It’s not necessarily a new call for action, but with Australia’s ageing population, there’s perhaps increased urgency in its tone.
“It’s bad now … in the next 10 to 15 years, it’s going to be catastrophic,” Mr Hayes says.
“We need to be able to deal with this.”
By 2057, it is projected there will be almost 9 million older people in Australia (22 per cent of the population); by 2097, nearly 13 million people (25 per cent).
“Fundamentally, we’ve got to get the funding right, and we’ve got to get it right for the next 15 years,” Mr Hayes says.
“I think there is a great consideration at the moment, if government’s prepared to have a look at it, about universal health care.”
Australia’s public expenditure on long term aged-care is currently at 1 per cent of GDP.
That’s compared to the OECD average of 1.8 per cent, as a recent Work and Family Policy Roundtable report highlights.
While not-for-profits dominate the aged care sector, for-profit providers and more recently on-demand platforms connecting older people with mobile home aged care workers have surfaced, with their own unique set of considerations.
“There’s been a marketisation of care which has seen the age care sector be a much more profitable opportunity,” Dr Kaine says.
“We’ve seen the development of online providers of aged and disability care.
“And while some have entered the market with noble intentions, a key concern with this sector is that if we think about gig workers generally as being vulnerable, it’s kind of vulnerability squared in the care sector, because you have workers who are being required to work as independent contractors without the rights of directly employed workers.”
But in the dominant public, not-for-profit sector, adequate staffing levels is a key consideration.
Particularly for workers like Marta.
She says her industry is chronically “short-staffed”, and that it’s “getting worse over the years”.
“We need more staff, at least double the staff, to look after the residents in the way that they deserve to be looked after with dignity and respect,” she says.
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