Older Australians opt out of residential aged care as occupancy rates fall to decade lows


A government report has revealed that aged care occupancy rates have fallen to their lowest level in a decade, as consumer advocates say people are holding off moving into aged care homes for as long as they can, and fears about COVID-19 have seen people leave.

The government has released a report by the Productivity Commission about the performance of the aged care sector. 

The report states that as of 30 June 2020, the occupancy rate for residential aged care was 88.3 per cent — the lowest rate recorded in the decade the data has been collected.

The report also reveals the shocking wait times to receive home care. In 2019-20, the median time for those assessed as needing home care to receive the package they were assessed as needing ranged from 6 months for a level 1 package to 28 months for level 4. 

Though abysmal, the results were an improvement on those for 2018-19, the report says.

Other key points from the report are:

  • The number of nurses and allied health staff in aged care homes has decreased. In 2016, 28.5 per cent of full time direct care staff at aged care homes were either nurses or allied health professionals, down from 31.8 per cent in 2012. 
  • The time between being assessed and moving into an aged care home has increased over the longer term. In 2019-20, the median elapsed time between ACAT approval and entering residential aged care was 148 days, a decrease from 152 days in 2018-19 but higher than 121 days in 2017-18.
  • Carers are often not satisfied with the support services available to them. Around 7 in 10 primary carers (71.3 per cent) were satisfied with the quality of services provided to help them in their caring role — down from 84.7 per cent in 2012.
  • And many older people feel isolated. In 2018, 13.8 per cent of older people reported they did not leave home or did not leave home as often as they would like, with 43% saying that was because of their disability or condition.

The problems flagged by the Productivity Commision have also been examined by the royal commission, which will release its final report and recommendations next month.

Residents left aged care homes during COVID-19

Danielle Robertson, Director of DR Care Solutions which places people into residential aged care homes, said several of her clients moved out of aged care homes during COVID-19 and instead chose to receive high quality care at home. 

Robertson said the “sheer complexity” of the system means older people often won’t know if they’re ready for residential aged care or what options are available to them.

Residential aged care is not simply about matching a bed with a person, she said, it’s about understanding the person’s individual care needs and their wishes. 

Cost is also determining consumers’ choices, Robertson said. If consumers really want choice when it comes to aged care, they have to be prepared to pay.

“I recommended to people, start putting money aside in your 50s,” she said.

Consumers delaying the move into aged care

Maria Berry, who advocates on behalf of aged care consumers and is a director of Communities of Respect, told HelloCare there is “so much confusion” about how the system works, people often wait until they are at breaking point before considering a move into residential aged care. 

Berry, who works in a regional area of north eastern Victoria, said navigating the system leaves many consumers struggling to find the services they need. 

“They reach out for support but find it’s not there,” she said.

“Down here people have very little choice,” she said.

Despite the higher occupancy rates Australia-wide, Berry says consumers in her region struggle to find beds, with some providers “picking and choosing” the residents they will take.

There is also a shortage of respite care, with one person looking for respite care told they will have to wait until September, Berry told HelloCare.

Home care wait times “unethical”

Berry said providers are “holding people back” when they offer lower levels of home care than the person has been assessed as needing, and the practice is “unethical”.

Home care prices are being inflated by administration fees and, because staff are scarce in regional towns, the costs of employing carers from other towns is also added to the costs for consumers.

“You can’t get support, and if you do get services you get ripped off. It’s just criminal,” Berry observed.

Another problem facing the sector is the high rates of aged care staff who are feeling burnt out and thinking of leaving aged care, Berry said. 

Several of Berry’s former aged care colleagues are considering leaving aged care because it has become so difficult. Bullying is rife, and management is often “terrible”, Berry explained.

Staff aren’t speaking out because they have signed contracts and are “silenced”, she said.

Confidence is returning to the sector

So strong is the desire to avoid residential aged care, Berry said one person she spoke to, who is in her 80s, is keeping a collection of pills she will take to avoid moving into a nursing home after seeing how poorly her husband was treated.

Berry believes baby boomers, many of whom are caring for their elderly parents and approaching the time they will require aged care services themselves, must “step up” and agitate for better aged care homes.

Robertson told HelloCare she believes confidence is returning to the sector post-COVID-19, but homes and aged care organisations that have received media attention throughout the crisis and in recent years will find it difficult to come back. 

“For those homes or organisations that have received bad press, it will be difficult for them to rebuild their reputations,” Robertson explained.

With consumers increasingly turning away from residential aged care, it also remains to be seen how the sector more broadly will turn its reputation around.

Image: Druvo.

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  1. Why would you expect people not be fearful of residential care? Despite an overwhelming satisfaction rate of actual residents reported in several surveys there is still the misrepresentations made by most media. In reality nursing homes, except for a minority, deliver care far superior to the funding they receive. This has seen expansion, upgrades and renovations mostly stop, the sector has been let down by the government. They have failed in their duty of care to provide adequate funding for the provision of services to the elderly in residential care.
    The Royal Commission has pointed out the problem that have plagued the sector for six years. Six years ago the government came to the conclusion that a percentage of homes were over claiming so they slashed funding across the entire sector which stopped the sector in its tracks.
    Residential care facilities are the best alternative available.

  2. Having read this article and noting comments referring to Maria Berry suggesting Baby Boomers step up, I am in agreement here and have been posting my thoughts on this subject and as well whenever I talk to people my age and younger I almost urgently suggest that they research and educate themselves in relation to their ageing and what it probably will entail. I am so afraid that younger people i.e. anyone from 50s to 70s will refuse to look their ageing in the eye and face conditions that will be theirs in the near future. Retirement villages as well will become the new nursing homes of the future.

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