The comment saddened us, but it was also unsurprising. The sector has been through a royal commission, uncovering a mountain of disturbing detail, yet little has improved for staff and residents on the frontline.
Many aged care homes and providers offer wonderful care, but we are still hearing regular reports of care failures, weak regulation and inadequate funding.
The sector is also seriously understaffed. A recent survey found 25% of shifts are going unfilled – and staff are underpaid. Aged care will never deliver the standard of care we expect and hope for in Australia without content and supported staff.
Sophie’s confession made HelloCare want to find out if her feelings are representative of the sector – and what is making them feel that way. If we can identify the issues worrying aged care workers, could this start a conversation that might solve some of the problems plaguing the industry?
So, we put a question to members of HelloCare’s Aged Care Worker Support Group on Facebook: “Do you feel embarrassed or proud to work in aged care?”
We received responses from about 50 aged care workers and were relieved to discover virtually all take immense pride in their work.
Most who responded said they love working with older people in aged care, and they gain great satisfaction from knowing their efforts improve the final months and years of their clients and residents.
Yet many admitted to feeling the aged care “system” is hampering their work, leading to feelings of shame and embarrassment. They do all they can to provide care, but they aren’t able to offer the quality of services they would like to and that they believe residents deserve.
What surprised HelloCare were the stories of those who said working in aged care had helped them personally, in moving forward in their life, in persisting despite the challenges, and in learning from older people how to live a better life.
It’s getting hard to say “I love my work”
Sophie has worked in a range of aged care roles over her four decades in the sector.
“I love aged care, always have,” she told HelloCare.
But many reforms in the sector “over the years … haven’t been good,” she explained.
Personal care workers are “busting their guts”.
They are administering medication, providing personal care, completing documentation, dishing up and serving meals, and washing dishes.
The aged care home where she works is “continually short staffed” and she is often “left in charge when there’s no registered nurse” on site.
If she doesn’t work beyond her paid hours “the work wouldn’t get done” – so she stays.
“I’m tired,” she admits. She plans to leave aged care in about two years, joining the exodus from the sector.
A registered nurse working in aged care who responded to our post, Rachel*, had similar feelings.
She said, “I am proud to work in aged care, but usually there is a moment where I pause and inwardly cringe after saying it.”
Rachel said nurses who work in other fields “definitely look down on us and think we are less skilled than them”.
Aged care pride
Reassuringly, the overwhelming attitude towards working in aged care was one of pride.
Samantha* explained what the role means to her.
“I don’t feel embarrassed. This is my forever job. I do this work because I choose to … I have left nursing and disability care to care for those who have contributed so much to this world already.
“It is a privilege to walk alongside people as they enter their twilight years.”
Another worker, Kelly*, said she is “very proud” to work in aged care.
It is frustrating that negative media coverage overshadows much of the good work being done in aged care, she continued.
“I’m frustrated that you only hear the bad stories and not the stories about how happy the residents are and that we’ve made a difference and given more quality to their day.”
Low pay erodes pride
The low rate of pay makes it difficult for James* to justify working in aged care, let alone take pride in his role, even though he loves working with older people.
“I struggle with knowing that my choice to do this work [that I love] is robbing my family of opportunities that I’d love to be able to provide.
“I know my family is proud of me for doing a job that makes a difference, but the financial cost is a daily challenge that is not easy to justify.”
The system letting staff and residents down
Many said they love their work and always strive to do their best, but the aged care ‘system’ – regulators, the government, providers – is letting staff and residents down.
Anne* said she wasn’t embarrassed to be a carer, but she “did get embarrassed daily that our customers weren’t getting the help and equipment needed due to bad management who don’t want to listen”.
Management promises a high level of service, leaving it to care staff to let the residents down “gently”, she said.
Emily* did not mince her words.
“I am embarrassed 100% knowing the elderly I care for don’t get the one-on-one time they need and the care they deserve because we are so short staffed. Our system is a disgrace.”
Monique* said of her role in aged care that she is, “Proud!!! … We can make a positive difference.”
But she admitted she is “absolutely ashamed of the [aged care] system”.
Fiona* admitted it was difficult hearing families say their loved one is not receiving proper care.
“It’s hard when you hear people talking about the limited care that their family members have received.”
She reassures herself with the knowledge she is “doing my best” and she perseveres despite the difficulties.
Amanda* said aged care workers “do a damn good job” despite understaffing, a huge workload and unrealistically high expectations from families, employers and the quality agency.
“The pressure is relentless and comes from all sides. We need ratios, wage increases and support,” she told HelloCare.
A giving sector
Some aged care workers revealed that while they love caring for older people, they also benefit from working in the sector.
Natasha* said she was “never ashamed” of working in aged care. In fact, the work had given her the “skills I needed to move forward in my life”.
She’d also met “great people” along the way.
For some, the fact the sector is so maligned amplifies their pride – they continue to care despite the challenges.
Maria* said “not many people want to work in an industry with such a bad reputation,” but “without us, who will look after them?”
She continued, “It’s an honour” to care for older Australians, and described their many attributes: “vulnerable, caring, brave, tough, scared, ashamed, stereotyped, loving, compassionate, worried, lonely, funny, abandoned, forgotten”.
Maria said she learns something new from older people every day.
“They have the best stories and life experiences, and what they have learnt in their lives teaches us what we should be doing.”
*Names have been changed.