Mar 17, 2022

Staffing crisis severely impacting senior Australians on home care packages

Staff shortage home care package

Speaking to the ABC, she said, “I love this place, but it is getting a little bit too big for me – not so much the house, but the garden.

“I’ve got arthritis in my hands, my shoulders are not working anymore.

“But I just don’t want to move from here. I love Reservoir and I wouldn’t be happy to go somewhere else.”

Ms Dolcetta has requested a home care package for assistance with cleaning, gardening and shopping.

Federal government subsidies are typically spread across four levels of home care categories, ranging from $9,000 a year for basic assistance to over $52,000 for more involved and complicated support.

The money is then distributed to a provider that the recipient has opted for.

Ms Dolcetta was deemed to be eligible for a Level 2 package last October, however, she is still waiting to receive word of when she’ll be able to utilise it.

Support can mean months on a waiting list for senior Australians

Following the Royal Commission into Aged Care, the federal government vocalised that money in the following budget would be rolled out to 80,000 additional home care packages over the span of two years. As of the end of last month, only 27,000 of the promised number have been allocated. 

While the waitlist has halved since 2019, there remain over 62,000 people continuing to wait for a home care package they have had administratively approved.  

Waiting times have been largely reduced, yet it is those assessed to be medium priority that are waiting around six months for a Level 1 package, or close to nine months for a Level 2-4 package.

Craig Gear, chief executive of the Older Persons Advocacy Network (OPAN), noted, “Six to nine months is way too long for older people to wait for a home care package … some people are dying while they’re waiting for the right level of care and the right package.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health reported that 3,802 people had died while waiting to be assigned a home care package in the latter half of 2021.

From the office of the Minister for Aged Care Services, Richard Colbeck, it was reported that there was no evidence to support that these deaths could be linked to the wait for a home care package.

The statement read, “Wait times for home care packages are at their lowest levels since Minister Colbeck was charged with the aged care portfolio in 2019.”

Ms Dolcetta received fortnightly Commonwealth-funded cleaning, and shared that she felt lucky she could draw upon family to support her while she continues to wait for her package. 

“A lot of people are struggling worse than me, and you feel sorry for people who don’t have that family support, and they’re waiting six or nine months as well,” she added. 

Worries remain that there are currently and will continue to not be enough personnel to match the demand created by the new home care packages that are set to be allocated.

Staff shortages mean impacted care 

Val Timms is set to turn 90 this year, she lives in her own home in Mullumbimby in NSW and is allocated the highest level of home care package to assist with taking her medication and personal assistance, alongside cooking and cleaning. 

“I get a lot of help … I wouldn’t be able to manage without it,” she shared with ABC.

“People come and get me up in the morning, get me going.

“And then through the day, they make sure that I eat and drink.”

Ms Timms conveyed how pleased she is with the care she gets from personnel when they visit, however, recently her son Terry has been coming to the home more frequently. 

Mr Timms explained that he has been stepping in to help his mum as shifts for staff have been increasingly cancelled. 

He said that the staff shortages have meant his mum, at times, has gone without home care because of the cancellations. 

“If no-one comes, then basically Mum will stay in bed until one of the family pops around.

“It doesn’t bother me tremendously,” Ms Timms noted.

“But if I don’t have them here, I can’t do anything. I’m not able to do anything on my own anymore, unfortunately.”

Mr Timms shared that his mother, as of March, had $29,000 unspent funds in her package.

“That’s funding the government provides to support my mother that can’t be spent because the provider hasn’t got the staff to provide the services,” he conveyed.

“So that’s an actual measurement of how far the service is falling behind.”

He also described that the staff shortages translated to different and unfamiliar staff caring for his mum, which may be increasingly confusing.

Australian Unity, Ms Timm’s provider, stated that the workforce shortages were a countrywide crisis, and it was struggling with recruiting and retaining staff that were appropriately skilled – a crisis that is even more pronounced in regional and remote areas of the country, such as Mullumbimby where Ms Timms resides, with markets being thin and vast stretches of land meaning talent pools of skilled workers is further reduced.

The provider’s statement read, “Workforce shortages restrict both our ability to sustain current service provision for our existing customers and inhibit our capacity to offer services to potential customers who may have just been approved for home care package funding.” 

Australian Unity was not able to speak to Ms Timms’ exact situation but highlighted that funds in a package could be unspent for a variety of reasons. 

It outlined that it was also announcing rosters to customers so there would be an awareness of what staff would be arriving, yet Mr Timms countered this. 

He said, “I used to ring Mum in the morning and say, ‘So-and-so’s coming at nine o’clock,’ and get her prepared. And that was a great support to Mum.” 

Mr Gear outlined that staff shortages were significantly impacting people’s home care packages across the nation. 

“They might go days without the level of support that they need,” he noted.

“Some people are delaying meals, delaying showers, and particularly that connection back to the community.”

Package providers are not optimistic about shortage trends 

Australian Multicultural Community Services (AMCS) is one of the home care providers experiencing shortages.

Elizabeth Drozd, its chief executive, is firstly very welcoming of the government’s partnership and rollout of additional home care packages. 

However, she noted, “Unfortunately, we find ourselves where we providers are not able to respond because of the workforce shortages.”

AMCS has sadly been unable to take on the many new client requests due to the inability to source skilled carers to fill shifts. 

Current staff have also been impacted as they have been working additional hours and days to fill in shifts and match demand. 

Ms Drozd has had experience working within multicultural community support for 30 years. She assessed that more should be done to raise the aged care labour force, even before the onset of COVID-19. 

“At the moment, the organisation that I manage, we could employ at least 50 people full-time, and we would have enough work for them.”

Alongside many residential aged care operators, for over two years, home care providers have had the heavily relied upon pool of overseas talent shut off due to border restrictions. 

Ms Drozd says the industry has lost many personnel due to vaccine mandates, and infection rates have also seen staff taking absences from work. 

The need for more personnel, however, is not a new one. The Productivity Commission assessed the requirement to dramatically raise the aged care talent pool a decade ago. 

Ms Drozd said, “I’m afraid not enough has been done about it, even prior to the pandemic.”

She has called on the government for a more transparent roadmap to respond to workforce shortfalls.

Recently the federal government listened to calls from voices across advocacy organisations and unions, to deploy military personnel to assist with residential aged care. 

Troops were deployed to assist aged care homes during the Omicron wave of the pandemic.

In 2021, the Royal Commission into Aged Care assessed a rise in the award wages was warranted so as to draw in additional personnel.  

However, the government remains waiting on the Fair Work Commission to rule on a possible minimum wage increase in the latter part of 2022.

Mr Gear is adamant the industry desperately needs increased numbers of skilled personnel.

In 2021, the government broadcast it would allocate over $90 million to develop the home care labour force through training 18,000 personal care workers and create a Home Care Workforce Support Program to engage, educate and hold on to personal care workers – additionally subsidising 33,800 places under the Job Trainer Fund for new and current care personnel to develop their qualifications. 

A statement from the Department of Health said, “The Australian Government has announced $652.1 million to grow a skilled, professional and compassionate aged care workforce, as part of its aged care reform agenda.”

The Department noted currently there were 15,000 additional people employed in the home care sector since the beginning of November 2021.

Meanwhile, Ms Timms has had to relocate from her home in Mullumbimby, as a temporary measure due to the recent flooding. 

She conveyed that she wishes to return as soon as the clean-up is completed, and that she’s hoping she’ll have enough home care assistance to make that a reality.   

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