Sep 28, 2020

Aged care in 2020: ACSA’s Patricia Sparrow reflects on the lessons learned

2020 has been a year none of us will ever forget and, most likely, a year very few of us will want to remember. When we first heard of the coronavirus outbreak we had little idea the scale of the impact it would have. When the World Health Organisation officially named the disease COVID-19 in February, we had no idea how many times we would hear, read and speak that name.

COVID-19 has affected everyone but older people and the aged care sector have been hit particularly hard. On the front line, this pandemic has presented challenges that none of us thought we would ever face. Providers and workers have been doing an extraordinary job in incredibly demanding circumstances.

Given COVID is here for the foreseeable future, it’s important that we take stock of what we’ve learned, what we’ve already done to meet the challenge and what we still need to do . 

Since early in the pandemic ACSA has been calling for a change in hospitalisation protocols for aged care. It’s no secret that the interface between the aged care system and the hospital system is confusing and complex but there should never be any doubt that older people can access hospital when needed. Access to hospital care should not be rationed and older people are just as deserving as everyone else. 

We want to see governments mandate that the first residents, or index cases, who test positive for COVID-19 be transferred to hospital as a matter of course. Only South Australia and Queensland have adopted the policy that ACSA believes, and international evidence supports, Australia must take forward. While we desperately hope there is never another pandemic, we need to be prepared and automatic hospitalisation of initial cases must be a part of that strategy.

The COVID-19 pandemic also exacerbated workforce concerns that the industry has been raising with governments for years. Our staff do an incredible job when caring for some of Australia’s most vulnerable people, but we need more of them and they need more support.

There wasn’t enough support, and that support wasn’t timely enough, to ensure that staff were able to take time off or isolate if they had the slightest COVD-19 symptoms. Support and appropriate payments for leave need to be in place for all staff so they don’t need to worry about how they will pay the rent or feed their kids.

The ongoing application of the one worker one site initiatives need to be evaluated including ensuring that workers are not financially disadvantaged. It also became even clearer that we do not have enough staff in aged care and we must recruit and train more of them. We need to address these concerns now and the government needs to finally accept that the time has come to properly invest in a larger and more robust aged care workforce.

As a sector, we have also had to innovate during the pandemic. We saw many providers invent physically distanced activities and visiting opportunities including visitor pods (glass walled visiting rooms) to ensure residents could still see and talk to their loved ones during lockdowns. We must continue to embrace innovation post-COVID and harness it to make the sector stronger.

But ultimately these issues, and other concerns that arose during the pandemic, highlight what the sector has been seeking for some time – reform. We need to reform the system so we can deliver the care older people and the community expect and that we want to deliver.

As we’ve seen throughout the Royal Commission hearings Australia’s aged care system is underfunded and this needs to be addressed as part of the reform agenda. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown what a crisis can do to a system that is stretched too thin and the outcomes have been tragic. 

While this has been a challenging year, we must learn from 2020 and ensure we’re better prepared in the future. This requires more than tinkering around the edges or focussing on single issues. It requires more than platitudes about the efforts and dedication of aged care workers. It requires decisive and system wide action to ensure we have a reformed and adequately resourced aged care system that delivers the care we all want and expect to older Australians and the community.


Image: Daniel Balakov via iStock

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