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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”