While there is no shortage of praise and admiration for the nurses working in residential aged care, the same can not be said for personal care assistants.
The well-documented failings of our aged care system have been front-page news in recent years, yet the lowest-paid and least qualified staff members in residential care feel as though they wear much of the blame.
One of the realities of having an aged care system without minimum staffing levels or skill mix is that some nurses are left with no option but to delegate tasks to personal care assistants that they have not been trained to deal with.
People living in aged care facilities have more complex needs than ever before, but a growing number of personal care assistants are being asked to take on the responsibility of administering medication along with other duties.
Personal care assistants are routinely subjected to physical and verbal abuse by residents, as well as being a target for abuse by families who have no concept of the workloads and time constraints that they face.
Yet despite all of this, being branded ‘just a carer’ is a negative stigma that many personal care assistants are still forced to deal with.
United Workers Union Aged Care Director, Carolyn Smith, recently spoke with HelloCare and highlighted how a growing list of responsibilities is having a negative impact on personal care assistants.
“The feeling of not being enough is something members have expressed to us and it’s disappointing because with the increasing workloads and the pressure felt throughout the sector workers need to be united and work together to provide good care,” said Ms Smith.
“With the increase of older Australians seeking aged care services and their needs becoming increasingly complex workers are under great stress and pressure to provide more care but they just don’t have the time.
“Their workloads have increased significantly and this is causing workers to feel like they aren’t able to give older Australians the quality care they deserve and need.”
With an average pay rate of around $22 per hour, personal care assistants actually receive less money than some people who are working entry-level retail positions.
A retail assistant working at an Aldi Supermarket in Australia currently earns $25 per hour, without the burden of responsibility or threat of occupational violence that a personal care assistant is forced to accept.
But do we actually value our groceries more than our elderly?
Or is this simply a case of it being socially acceptable to exploit the kinds of people who are being forced to become personal care assistants through a lack of choice?
Newly arrived immigrants and older women make up a large percentage of the personal care assistant workforce – two groups of people who have always found it notoriously difficult to secure new employment.
United Workers Union Aged Care Director, Carolyn Smith, believes that current pay rates for personal care assistants do not reflect their current workload and she also feels that the lack of Federal funding is to blame.
“Pay rates have stagnated sector-wide due to a lack of increase in the already low Federal budget,” said Ms Smith.
“It is almost insulting as workers are already being paid low wages and their workload is becoming higher and the needs of aging Australians are becoming more and more complex.
“It’s so evident that the sector desperately needs extra funding to pay these professionals a professional wage.”
If being underpaid and undervalued by the aged care system wasn’t enough, a number of personal care assistants attest to feeling undervalued by the colleagues around them.
One personal care assistant told HelloCare that a third of the student PCA’s in her class actually moved on to other industries after having an awful experience during their work placement, while others described animosity due to negative treatment by nurses in their facility.
The Royal Commission’s Interim Report highlighted that “caring for older people” was the common motivator for people working in aged care, but “low pay” and “excessive” work demands have resulted in a feeling of dissatisfaction among staff.
Public perceptions of the aged care industry have grown increasingly negative in recent times as footage of neglect and elder abuse received mainstream media attention across the country.
Personal care assistants who were once proud of their job have revealed that they now prefer to keep quiet about their career, highlighted by incidents where aged care staff reported being abused on the street while wearing their uniforms.
Personal care assistants currently make up 70% of the residential aged care workforce and Carolyn Smith believes that their contribution needs to be respected and acknowledged.
“The sector needs carers to provide care and assistance to an ageing population. Their work is integral to making the system work,” said Ms Smith.
“They often stay back just to complete tasks, or to finally have the time to hold someone’s hand or give a comforting hug – it’s not just a job to them.
“Carers want to give person-centered care and for many older Australian’s who don’t receive regular visits from family, this can be their only proper interaction.
“We talk about how undervalued aged care workers are, but the reality is, carers are the aged care system.”