Aged care a 'government wealth hazard'

Aged care a 'government wealth hazard'

Courtney Howe

There is no escaping the problem of aged care. Australians are living for a quarter of a century longer than they were when the pension started. But according to the media, aged care is a “government wealth hazard” that is going to cost tax payers $3.7 billion.

The latest reform, outlined in the Gillard Labor Government’s Living Longer, Living Better plan includes more money for more in-home care, encouraging older Australian’s to stay at home for longer. The $3.7 billion plan that will be spread over five years is the start of a 10 year reform program that will introduce more fairness to the financing of both institutional and home care, and the aged care workforce.

The coalition is yet to fully back the reform, which will not be put into full effect until 2014.

“The Prime Minister committed her government last year to starting the process of aged-care reform in this term of government and we remain committed,” Minister for Ageing Mark Butler said.

“One of the truest tests of a decent society is how we treat our seniors – those citizens who for years have worked hard, paid taxes and raised their families and who in retirement might need some care and support in return from the community that they helped to build.”

Of recent surveys conducted with a portion of older Australians, 100 per cent of the response agreed that the most effective way to reduce pressure on the aged care system would be to support elderly people remaining independent in their own homes for longer.

Survey participants also agreed with the statement that “aged care has become a business, not a service”, reflecting the need for an emphasis on in-home care – a preference that older Australians have expressed for some time now.

Margaret Forsyth, a 79 year old retiree living independently in her own home agrees that encouraging older people to remain at home for longer induces peaceful mental health, as well as “an incentive to remain active within their own community for longer”.

Our ageing population is growing rapidly, most significantly in the 85 years and over sector. According to the Australian Bureau of statistics, it is expected to rise from its current standing at 1.6% (400,000) of the population, to over two million, between 4.9% and 7.3% by 2056.

In less than 40 years, projections expect some 3.5 million elderly Australians to be accessing aged care services, mainly home-based.

The Productivity Commission Report, released last year, has been integral in creating awareness around the neglected industry and bringing about the beginnings of a significant reform.

The report examines the social, clinical and institutional aspects of aged care in Australia, highlighting the increase in demand for better quality care of Australia’s rapidly ageing population. The need to secure significant expansion in the aged care workforce at a time of age induced tightening of the labour market and wage variations in comparable sectors.

Aged care nurses in Australia currently have no minimum staffing levels in aged care facilities, and are paid up to $300 per week less than public health nurses.

It is clear now that Mr Butler and the government have considered these findings, placing an adequate workforce high on the Living Longer, Living Better agenda. Funding of $1.2 billion will be allocated to tackle critical shortages in the aged care workforce, and a further $54.8 million will be allocated to supporting home-based carers.

“The supply of a well-trained, properly remunerated and dedicated workforce is perhaps the key supply constraint on our aged care sector,” Mr Butler said.

The public also agree, with 100% of those surveyed highlighting the quality of nurses as one of the most important aspects of aged care, along with affordability, 24 hour assistance and social participation.

Equal pay for aged care nurses will be critical in ensuring an adequate workforce to meet the future challenges of an ageing population. The proportion of GDP that will be devoted to aged care is projected to more than double, from the current figure of 0.8% to 1.8% in 2050. Another hurdle the reform faces is that a higher proportion of the elderly are likely to suffer dementia and diabetes, adding to the cost and complexity of care required.

Elizabeth Collins, a former aged care nurse, says that outdated practises are being used within homes as well as nurses lacking interpersonal skills.

“We are an ageing population but now the number of elderly under care have[sic] become a collective number, with less focus on the individual and their families,” Ms Collins said.

In 2010 there were around 300,000 aged care workers in Australia, 100,000 of whom are facing retirement over the next decade. By 2050, the sector estimates a required workforce of about almost 830,000 workers – more than double the current number of aged care nurses.

The other primary focus of the Living Longer, Living Better scheme is the shift to home-based care being partly a reflection of the growing unpopularity of low-care accommodation.

The Government expects the reform to take more than 10 years, but at least it is being ‘talked’ about. The fear behind an ageing population is that the aged care system may collapse if the government does not act quickly to make a major investment to fix it.

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