December 11, 2019 06:38:05
In the next decade, one in five people in Australia will be over the age of 65, and in a state like South Australia, an already ageing population is having an impact.
- Judith Leeson AM says she is battling declining health and can no longer do housework
- She is one of thousands of elderly Australians ineligible for a home-care package
- She is among South Australia’s ageing population
South Australia has the second-highest proportion of individuals over the age of 65 in the nation, and the oldest proportion of people over the age of 85.
Judith Leeson AM, 85, is among those bearing the brunt of an already-stretched system.
While she has dedicated her life to caring for others — and even honoured for her work as a Member of the Order of Australia — she cannot access the care and support she needs.
“I’ve had an assessment and I probably appear more capable than I actually am physically, but I understand there’s a scarcity of packages to offer these kinds of support,” she said.
“My physical health has not been excellent and there are some of the things now that I would like to have some help with; I can no longer do the housework or the gardening.
“We’re quite realistic that we’ll need to struggle on for quite a lot longer.
“They almost expect you to keep doing it until you collapse and after you collapse, then they’ll help you.”
There are currently about 120,000 older Australians waiting for a home-care package, but then there are an immeasurable number of older people — like Mrs Leeson — who are deemed ineligible.
‘We definitely need to be better prepared’
By 2031, 19 per cent of Australia’s population is expected to be aged over 65.
However, many people working and researching the sector have said the nation is unprepared to meet the demand of our ageing population, particularly in regards to healthcare and community services.
Research by the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) has found the health and frailty of older Australians is worsening, medication use is increasing and the number of older Australians presenting with a myriad of health conditions is also on the rise.
Director of the Registry of Senior Australians Maria Inacio said the research — which is under review by the Internal Medicine Journal — found frailty had increased threefold in a decade.
“Conditions that are very frequent and have increased over the years are hypertension, heart disease, cardiovascular diseases, but also depression,” she said.
“The presence of individuals presenting with pain has also increased dramatically.
“A lot more work needs to be done in this area … and we definitely need to be better prepared.”
She said people were now accessing aged care services later in life — 86 being the average age — and many were snubbing residential care altogether, and seeking in-home support instead.
Fears that older people are becoming silenced
Determined not to end up in a residential aged care facility, which Mrs Leeson described as a “detention centre”, she and her husband downsized and moved to the Adelaide Hills 15 years ago, after losing much of their savings to fraud.
She wanted to live a more sustainable life, grow her own fruit and vegetables and create her version of “heaven” but recently — and reluctantly — she has had to hang up her gardening gloves.
She lives off the aged pension and some income from consultancy work as a career counsellor.
“Anyone living on an aged pension doesn’t have staff,” she said.
“Because I still do so much voluntary work … if I try and do some of these tasks that are beyond me, I get very tired.
“I feel at 85, it’s not really that early in my life to ask for some support.”
Ms Leeson said she feared older people were increasingly becoming silenced, invisible and stereotyped and that Australia has lost its ability to care for older generations.
So, what’s the solution?
Noticing a major gap in care for older Australians, Alison Kitson — who is the vice president and executive dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at Flinders University — helped establish the Caring Futures Institute at the university.
“If they don’t get that help early on, then it’s going to lead to some sort of catastrophe where they then will be much more dependent,” she said.
“It’s a bit like if you wanted to order a pizza and you wanted it in the next 20 minutes and two days later you were still waiting for it.”
While it was the treatment and abuse of older South Australians that triggered the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, Professor Kitson said she believed the state was now on the cusp of leading reform and improvement in the sector.
About 150 people, including 75 PhD students, are now involved in the institute working on medical devices, technologies and apps that can help people stay supported in their own home longer.
Some researchers are developing and trialling robots that can sense — and help — when someone has fallen.
Others have created programmed wearable devices which can help users who are starting to lose their memory, remember what they needed to do.
“There’s so much to celebrate about the fact we have a lot of older people here, and I think that’s where we need to turn it to see it as an opportunity,” she said.
“With our older colleagues in the community, if we can actually solve some of these caring problems then that’s something we can market to the rest of the world.
“Working with industry partners, with community, with consumers, we want to knock this one in the head so we won’t ever need to have any more royal commissions.
“People just think you naturally know how to [care], well we know that it’s not natural, you have to be taught about it, you have to research it, you have to know how to do it better, we have to embed it into all of our caring systems and processes.”
The institute is also working on research in a range of areas including family support, dementia and heart health.
Adelaide retiree Jan Martin told the ABC a weekly fitness class followed by a social coffee catch-up was about both health and community.
“It’s the best part of the week,” Ms Martin said.
“The coffee’s a time when we just offload to each other — families, kids, husbands — it’s part of our mental health really.
“As we get older, how we want to age or what we’d [want] to do is part of the conversation.
“None of us want to live in a nursing home where you’ve got a set of rules put there by someone else that we might not like, and you can’t have a dog.
“I have suggested living in a commune, so we can look after each other, our own little retirement village if we live close enough to each other than we can help each other out if need be.”
This is part four of South Australia’s Our Changing State series that looks at how SA is changing and the challenges it must overcome.
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