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Royal Commission into aged-care: We must use horror stories to fix system

Why, in 2018, nearly two decades after the national outrage generated by the kerosene baths scandal, are we still hearing heart-breaking stories of neglect and mistreatment of our most vulnerable citizens in aged-care facilities?

Stories of being left in a soiled bed for hours, of hunger, isolation and misuse of medications. Stories that play on our greatest fears as we age and as we grapple with the difficult decision to put our loved ones in the care of strangers.

And it appears there is more to come. In the wake of this week’s ABC Four Corners program on aged care, radio talkback and office chatter have gone into over-drive. Callers and colleagues alike have shared their own horror stories of dealing with aged-care providers and their fears of making the wrong choice for family members.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a royal commission into aged care. While the terms of reference are yet to be finalised, it is clear that many more distressing stories are waiting to be told. Aged-care providers must brace themselves for the public backlash and inevitable calls for tougher policing of the industry.

The last time the national spotlight shone with such intensity on the aged-care sector followed reports in 2000 that residents of a Victorian nursing home had been bathed in kerosene to treat an outbreak of scabies. The home has since closed but the revelations sparked a wave of stories of mistreatment in aged-care facilities around the country.

In response to community outrage, the Federal government rolled out a tougher accreditation and audit regime for aged-care facilities. Journalists regularly scoured audit reports for more evidence of wrongdoing in the industry. The public scrutiny of aged-care providers was intense.

It is worth giving some thought to the people and organisations that are working desperately hard to do the right thing in a challenging industry.

Since then, there have been a number of inquiries into the sector and multiple attempts at regulatory reform.

Yet here we are again. It remains to be seen what the royal commission will reveal — or achieve. In many ways, it can be a positive. As the Prime Minister said at the weekend, there are no excuses for abuse, neglect and failures affecting some of the most vulnerable people in our communities and those responsible need to be held to account.

However, amid all the negative headlines set to come, it is worth giving some thought to the people and organisations that are working desperately hard to do the right thing in a challenging industry.

Aged-care providers and workers who are just as appalled as the rest of us by these terrible stories and who want to see those responsible drummed out of the industry, will find themselves tarred by the same brush and having to defend their own operating practices.

Many of us have had a glimpse of aged-care from the perspective of putting a loved one into the system. It’s an emotionally harrowing experience and the paperwork is daunting.

What we might not always appreciate are the challenges on the other side of the fence. The regulatory processes that can frustrate us — while clearly in place with good intentions — are often equally difficult to navigate for aged-care providers.

In an environment where it is a perpetual challenge to recruit and retain quality staff, they must also contend with the costs of complying with onerous administrative requirements and a funding model that is already too stretched to meet the demands of a rapidly ageing population.

Despite the negative issues likely to be highlighted by the royal commission, there are good stories to be told about aged care. About young people ignoring the lure of what might be viewed as more glamorous work elsewhere to forge their careers in a sector where they can have a genuinely positive impact on people’s quality of life. About an industry increasingly looking to adopt technology and innovation to improve care and to operate more effectively.

There are even stories, admittedly rare, of people going into aged care and regaining their independence through care and structured support and being able to move back into their own homes.

The royal commission is an opportunity, not just to investigate abuses and failures but to identify what is working and improve the framework that underpins our aged-care system.

In order to provide the care our seniors deserve, we must respond to the inevitable horror stories with a determination to identify the root causes and to find a better way.

Carina Tan-Van Baren is an aged care lead at communications firm Cannings Purple

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