Nov 01, 2021

She cares: How ABC investigations journalist Anne Connolly exposed Australia’s worst kept secret

How AAnne Connolly exposed Australia’s worst kept secret

Soon thereafter, personal experiences involving her mother-in-law’s time in residential aged care confirmed an uncomfortable truth that rarely garners any mainstream media attention.

“It was under-regulated. It was clear there weren’t enough staff, there weren’t enough well-trained staff, so I suggested to my investigations editor, Jo Puccini, that we should do a crowdsourced investigation and see what people come back with,” said Ms Connolly.

Despite a general lack of interest from the general public in stories regarding ageing and mortality, the ABC felt it was important to pursue the investigation, and they were soon inundated with over 4,000 responses from aged care staff and family members who wanted to tell their stories.

“When you have staff that are willing to speak out and the same story is being told across the country about [aged care] conditions, that’s when you know that it’s a systemic problem,” said Ms Connolly. 

A pre-emptive strike?

In the weeks leading up to the release of Anne Connolly’s two-part investigative report into aged care, which was aptly titled, ‘Who Cares?’, government officials and industry figures with forewarning of the upcoming exposé braced themselves for backlash.

With the investigation set to air on Monday, 17 September 2018, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety – precisely 24 hours before the investigative report’s release.

“There’s absolutely no doubt,” said Ms Connolly. 

“I mean [Scott Morrison] knew entirely because we’d interviewed Aged Care Minister Ken Wyatt, we had put in a series of questions to the regulator about very specific incidents, so they knew that we were looking at abuse, neglect and chemical restraint.”

Ms Connolly added, “I look back on some of the conversations and interviews with Greg Hunt, who was asked specifically was it anything to do with [the Who Cares investigation] and they just ignore that particular question. But, there is no doubt [that it prompted the Royal Commission] and I’m happy because we all know it absolutely needed it.”

To the unsuspecting public, the PM’s announcement of a Royal Commission indicated significant problems with Australia’s aged care system, but very few outside of the aged care industry were prepared for the horror of the following night’s viewing. 

Pulling back the curtain

Over the course of two harrowing episodes, Australians were confronted with shocking footage of the abuse and neglect of elderly people as tearful aged care workers provided a brutal assessment of a broken system. 

The distressing nature of the program provoked a visceral reaction from viewers, and Ms Connolly revealed that she struggled to view the footage herself throughout the editing process.

“Some of the stuff I just couldn’t look at after a while,” she shared.

“It was the neglect of somebody who was stuck in a room but didn’t have their hearing aids. One woman was deaf and blind and nobody would come and see her holding out her cup hoping that someone might walk by and give her a drink of water,” she said.

For many Australians – including those with relatives living in aged care – these images were their first look inside the walls of an Australian nursing home. 

As viewers tried to reconcile the horror stories of a badly broken system from the idealistic, smiling elderly faces seen in glossy aged care brochures, many Australians voiced their outrage to aged care industry figures via social media.

Blissful ignorance had now been replaced with worry and guilt.

“I think it makes people aware of the things that they should look out for. Is there enough staff? Are they well-trained staff? And [it teaches people] not to be hoodwinked by a chandelier in the foyer and a beautiful lounge and a great cafe. Because, you know, we know it’s a business.”

She continued, “Aged care providers know that they actually have to appeal to the family. [A resident’s relatives] want a great cafe and they want the place to look fantastic. But in reality, I’ve discovered that you want a place that doesn’t look anything like that. You want a place that is busy with staff and people know what they’re doing.” 

The old guard

Six months removed since The Final Report of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety was tabled in Parliament, Ms Connolly is both hopeful and skeptical of the government’s response to the three-year inquiry.

“It has to be better than what we’re living with, right?” she said.

“They’ve suggested this user-pay system for residential aged care – a bit like homecare – which is a disaster, right?”

Ms Connolly added, “If you think about the most important things, in my opinion, it’s staff, enough of them and trained staff, and the amount of money that came from the budget into that is minimal, compared to the amount of money they’re spending on new buildings.” 

Although the completion of the Royal Commission brought about a number of changes in aged care regulation, industry leadership remains very much the same as it was before the inquiry – despite the systemic failings.

Lobby groups within the aged care industry are known to wield considerable power.

Ms Connolly believes that their influence may be hindering efforts to improve the lives of older Australians living in aged care as the government panders to the needs of larger aged care providers.

“I think that those providers should actually start speaking up, because for a long time when nursing homes with terrible neglect, abuse and chemical restraint were exposed, no one else in the industry would come out and condemn them. It was wrong.”

She continued, “[It was] everything is fine in aged care, there’s nothing to see here. And that’s just not the case. It would be so much better if people were open about it and say, listen, they aren’t up to scratch … we go to great effort and our reputations are being ruined by these people who are cowboys making money on the system?

“Now, we’ve got the same sort of, you know, workshops and investigations, and same people, all the same lobby groups, all the same advocacy groups, all putting in their submissions, putting their point of view as if nothing has changed, and also fighting against some of the changes that have been recommended,” said Ms Connolly. 

Despite her inquiries throughout the aged care investigation, Ms Connolly revealed that she received no help from consumer advocacy groups who are said to represent older people and their families.

“I’ve never got a single story out of the advocacy groups, and I think that’s a shame, if they want to prove that they’re actually representing elderly people and their families,” said Ms Connolly. 

“In fact, I was told at one point, by somebody quite senior, to ‘be careful, because someone at the ABC got sued for this particular investigation’ – so that makes you wonder, what is their role?”

Hopeful horizons?

With no clear indication of funding for extra staff or extra training, Ms Connolly is fearful that the biggest issue facing aged care is still yet to be properly addressed.

While she is encouraged by quotas regarding additional care minutes for aged care residents, she is unsure how meeting these standards will be possible without additional staff.

“I just think if the small providers actually get to have more of a say about what they need, and if real families and consumers actually have an input into what’s happening [that will be an improvement].”

She continued, “If you have a scheme where real people go inside aged care facilities, see what’s happening, make reports, make changes, and people listen, instead of families being treated as being over-reactive [that will be an improvement].” 

While Ms Connolly has taken a step back from the aged care sector in recent months, she is keeping a close eye on things and hoping for the best. 

“I’m giving it time to see what happens. I’m watching everything,” said Ms Connolly.

“We’ve got to give [new aged care reforms] a chance,” she said

“It couldn’t be any worse. Let’s put it that way.”

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  1. A good read, after working in aged care for 17 yrs and happy to be retired, I really can’t see the problems in aged care being fixed. We have to many bureaucrats at the top who are making a profit out of these vulnerable, beautiful elderly people who have worked and contributed to our society, and deserve better. Biggest problem shortage of trained staff, staff have to have compassion and empathy.

    1. Aged Care will never be “fixed” until we, the voting public, stand up and challenge each and EVERY member of our Federal parliament who allow the neglect, abuse and rorts to continue. Until we fund, staff and seriously regulate aged care properly nothing changes.
      Make aged care an election issue, front & centre. Aged care is a Human Right.

  2. Most of the relatives who told stories of abuse at the Royal Commission looked fit and financially well off enough to care for their aged parent or spouse at home instead of warehousing them so they could get on with their busy lives.

    There are a lot of vested interests in aged care who have their snouts in the trough and it’s not just providers. Journalists, counselors, advocates, university researchers all get paid don’t they?

  3. Ms Connolly, thank you for bringing this to the forefront, but I don’t believe it has changed much from the time I worked in age care and now.
    We have careers that cant speak clear English to the residents and don’t understand what they want quite often.
    I have a mother in an aged care facility and after almost 18 months of lockdown she was allowed to go out for dinner with a friend but was told “you can only go for 2hours and stay in the 3.5km. What is this are they prisoners? have they committed a crime? The only crime they have committed…if it is a crime is getting older, which I don’t believe is a crime.
    I have had to demand that they call an ambulance not once but twice because my mother was so sick and was not responding to anyone. They thought she just didn’t want to answer and wanted to be left alone….which is what they did until I walked in to discover my mother halfway off the bed and eyes rolling back in her head with a temperature and blood pressure that would not respond.
    I am in the process of looking for another aged care facility but how the heck do I know that it will be any better?
    thanks for listening to a very frustrated daughter.

  4. Good comment by Will Sullivan.

    When someone you love dies, there are two feelings. Grief and regret. Grief may be lessened over time but regret is the same for ever.

    Make sacrifices (yes, even very big ones) and look after them at home instead of putting them out of sight out of mind in an aged care facility.

  5. Not only are we still understaffed we are now underpaid trainers which are beening used as that extra pair of hands instead off trained staff .

  6. i have written my story about my husbands neglect over one year, it is being finalized by a publisher now, hopefully out in January 2022. i kept notes and pulled in all his records, a very costly exercise. he was overdosed. no care, no music, no exercise, no recreation of any kind. just neglect, humiliating, no privacy, no dignity, i could go on and on. Justice for my Bob is on its way. Held in hospital rooms five weeks twice, three weeks once. with untrained guards. Congratulations for instigating the royal commission, i was starting my second chapter when that came about much to my relief.
    i also paid a lawyer to help me through. Sarah Wallace.

    just a thought:::: if you like my story, maybe you could help me advertise it at Berrima, in the Southern Highlands, nsw. in dementia week March 2022. with ( Dementia Reframed ) helping carers navigate the system. thank you for reading this.

  7. Aged care need qualified staff, management and on-going training.
    Residents need freshly cooked meals, decent food not dogs dinner, actually animals eat better than the residents.
    This providers need a spot checks how they manage this residents and cleanliness.
    Unfortunately my husband was experiencing this services is horrid and I check on him everyday when possible. Goodluck to whoever is looking into this ongoing case. Will it be fix? Good question!!

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