The diverse group met with Ministers Greg Hunt and Richard Colbeck, introduced themselves to each other, and talked about their backgrounds, their areas of interest and their passions.
A communique from the session noted a strong common theme: “ageing well”.
A Council of Elders was in the top 10 recommendations of the royal commission, and has the purpose of ensuring older people have a direct voice in government policy development.
The council will meet monthly for at least the next six months, and then possibly bi-monthly.
Council Chair Ian Yates AM told HelloCare all members of the council are older people and have lived experience of ageing and aged care.
There was a great deal of “energy”, “optimism” and “passion” in the room on that first meeting, he said, as well as an impressive depth of experience, from First Nation members, to a representative with deep multicultural experience, to human rights advocates, to people with a range of professional skills, and more.
Council member Val Fell is a well known advocate for people living with dementia and for ageing well. She recently turned 93.
As she passed this milestone, she contemplated what she hopes the council will achieve for older Australians – and for herself as she grows older.
“I will be able to maintain my independence until I get to the stage where I know that I no longer have the capacity to make decisions on my own. Then I can decide who the person [who can make decisions on my behalf] is, and who’s going to support me,” she said.
Ms Fell told HelloCare it makes her “happy” she is potentially making a contribution to the future design of the aged care system in her role on the Council, and the fact she is being consulted about aged care reform makes her feel “that my life has had … some meaning. I could help others.”
She continued, “I am happy that the Council of Elders will be able to put forward the views of senior Australians and that, as a result of that, notice will be taken of those views and incorporated into the formulation of the new Aged Care Act.”
Ms Fell stressed the importance of the new Aged Care Act being developed within the framework of human rights, although the communique from the Council’s first meeting does not specifically mention human rights.
“You have to go down [the human rights] path” and adopt a person-centred approach, says Ms Fell.
Elders left out of decision making
Speaking as an individual, not as a member of the Council, Ms Fell said that up to this point elders have not had a voice in the national conversation about aged care.
But the Council will change that – and they intend to be heard.
“It will [have a voice] from now on,” she observed wryly.
Residents should have some “representation” at the decision-making level and have a say in “how the [aged care] residence is being run”.
Mr Yates said he has often been a lone consumer voice in the national conversation about aged care, which has been dominated until now by providers and aged care professionals.
Royal commissioner Lynelle Briggs was critical that the consumer’s voice often was not represented at the final point in the government’s policy decision making.
Mr Yates said that although the council’s role is clear, and the government will listen to their advice, he “can’t guarantee” they will incorporate it into their policies.
We need the right workforce
Ms Fell stressed the importance of getting the workforce “right”.
“We need the right people working with the right training – and I don’t think a couple of weeks of courses [is suitable] – I mean the right training in the right place at the right time.”
“That means something like staff ratios, or being able to put into place the care minutes that are required, with the right amount of remuneration and a reward for continued personal development.
“To maintain that you need to change the cultural attitude towards ageism,” Ms Fell told HelloCare.
No use-by date
We have to “get rid” of the attitude that once you’re old “you’re no use anymore,” said Ms Fell.
Sometimes it seems like older people have a used-by date on their forehead, she joked.
Ms Fell believes intergenerational programs in preschools and schools can help shape more accepting attitudes towards ageing, but she laments the fact that Australian society has moved away from the idea that “it takes a village to raise a child”.
She said older people aren’t as respected as they once were.
“It’s amazing what the old people don’t know,” she said, with more than a hint of sarcasm and a laugh.
Though Ms Fell says she doesn’t see herself as a role model, she says she is often seen in that role.
The fact she is old “doesn’t really enter my head”, she said. Some of her closest friends are in their 30s, and her family are all ages, from a great-grandson who is one to her oldest child who is 65.
“I know how old I am – I keep reminding myself because I never say ‘no’ to doing things,” she said.
Judging by the life of her mother, who lived to 100, Ms Fell says she still has at least another seven years “to catch up”.
“I keep on thinking, ‘I’ve still got some time’,” she said.
Ms Fell and I talked for 20 minutes, but could have gone on for longer. She doesn’t seem to tire, though she has several documents to read before tomorrow’s first working meeting of the council. She’s 40 years my senior, but Ms Fell is outpacing me.
If anyone’s doing that, it’s the Council of Elders and Val Fell.