We thank every selfless aged care worker on International Women’s Day

IWD aged care workers webinar
From L-R: Teresa (home carer), Grace (residential aged care worker) and Irene (registered nurse).

The last year has seen a staff shortage crisis, countless lockdowns and outbreaks of COVID-19, plus zero improvements to the aged care sector by the government since the royal commission was tabled a year ago on March 1. 

We thank all aged care workers – women and men – for their unselfish hard work and for putting their clients and residents first.

All three of the workers who have shared their stories below love their clients and residents, and have worked tirelessly to protect and support them during the pandemic, but sadly they are at the limits of their emotional and physical reserves. 

They are pleading with management and the government for more staff – and for their work to be recognised, respected and appreciated.

In the United Workers Union’s ‘Aged Care in Crisis’ webinar last week, the three aged care workers shared their first-hand accounts of the challenges they each face. 

At times it made for harrowing watching and listening as they shared the difficulties they faced, how impossible it was to properly care for residents and how abandoned and neglected they feel on a daily basis.

Grace – aged care worker

Grace has been an aged care worker for four years and is based in Adelaide. The past 12 months have been difficult for her, especially during a COVID-19 outbreak. 

Grace often has to work 12-hour shifts, six days a week, due to staff shortages, including on shifts where she is caring for residents who have COVID.

Often she is working alone. “If someone cancels, you most likely have to work by yourself.”

She added, “The past few months have been really, really tough for me.”

The long shifts have left her feeling “isolated” and “in a little bubble”.

Grace said management showed little concern for how their staff were faring, despite the highly challenging circumstances.

“Management is more concerned about covering the 12-hour shift than they are about your mental wellbeing, and checking on you to see how you are feeling mentally, emotionally, and if they can do something to help you cope,” she said.

“During that time it felt like we had been neglected.”

“It feels like we’re not being heard,” she said.

Grace described herself as “outgoing and bubbly”.

“I like to see the light even in the darkest area,” she said. 

Grace said often several residents would need her help at the same time, but because she was the only one working she could not help them all. Residents who required two assists were also not able to receive the care they needed.

Not being able to give the residents the care they need made Grace “feel like I’m not good enough … It made me feel, ‘what’s the point of me being here if I can’t give that proper care?’”

However, Grace said she has come to the realisation that “it’s not [her] fault”. Management knows the problems, “but they don’t want to give extra staff to help”.

“Nobody wants to come to work because they’re worried they might catch COVID, but also, what’s the point of coming to work and giving my best when the management [doesn’t] care about our wellbeing? 

“They don’t care about our health, they don’t care about anything – they only care about covering the shift and that’s it,” Grace said.

“I deserve better, the residents deserve better,” she said.

Grace said families who think their loved ones are being well cared for should think again.

“Families out there probably think their relatives are getting the best care in a facility … but they are not,” she said.

“It feels like the government just doesn’t care,” she said.

Irene – registered nurse

Irene is a “proud and passionate” RN and has been working in aged care for three decades. 

“I like to think I make a difference to the residents’ lives, but we are falling well-short of what the needs are,” she told the webinar. 

From the outset, Irene feels she is failing her job description. Her role is to provide safe and effective nursing care that promotes a safe environment. 

“Bang, I’m already failing my job description,” she said. “There’s not enough of me to go around” when there is one nurse for 70 residents with two carers.

“We haven’t got the staff to provide safe care,” she said.

“We’re despairing. We feel like we’re drowning.”

Aged care facilities are feeling like “mini hospitals” where residents are being triaged for care, having to wait their turn, rather than having the timely care they need, deserve and should be able to expect.

Even food and drinks are “always late”.

“We’re talking about human life here. It’s human rights, it’s dignity. Which government is going to listen and hear our [desperation]?”

“I’ve done aged care for 30 years. I’ve seen such a dissolution of the industry it just breaks my heart. We can’t all be wrong. We’re needing help.”

Irene pointed out the aged care workforce is itself ageing. Over 10% of the residential aged care workforce is over 60 years old. More than one quarter is over 50.

“I’m 60 next year. I have to retire eventually,” she said.

After work, Irene often needs to “debrief”. 

“We give so much during the shift, barely having a drink of water. We are doing our darndest, with the phone ringing, the doctors interrupting us, insulin needed here, morphine there, then people breathing down our necks for documentation.

“There are simply not enough of us to go around,” she said.

She pointed out that many of the issues with residents are not simply medicinal or physical, they are psychological – including dementia, depression and alcoholism.

“We’re despairing,” she said.

Clearly emotional, Irene pleaded for change.

Teresa – home carer 

Teresa works in home care, which is being touted as the “solution” to the crisis in aged care.

But Teresa says home care workers are “quiet” and “the red-headed stepchild of aged care” – “unseen and unheard”.

Home care workers “struggle” with low pay, low hour contracts, insecure jobs, and irregular hours, she said.

They often don’t know week to week how much work is going to be available – so they make themselves available from 7am to 11pm – but there are no guarantees for any work.

“You may sit around and wait all day for nothing,” Teresa said.

There is a constant erosion of the workers’ entitlements and a lack of training, qualifications and standards. 

“These things are expensive and unfortunately providers don’t put any value in them. Nor do they value a highly skilled and willing workforce,” she said.

Yet, Teresa describes herself as “highly dedicated” to her clients. She has been working in the industry for 20 years.

During COVID-19, her working hours have dried up. Clients are cancelling. Yet technically they are still employed so they can’t apply for Centrelink benefits.

In the early days of the pandemic, personal protective equipment (PPE) “disappeared” and home care workers were told to extend use of them or source their own. At the same time, the home care workers were being told COVID-19 could kill them or their clients. 

They “struggled” to keep up with the information and keep their clients safe, and themselves safe – but they were never given “recognition” for their work, Teresa said.

Making their clients “feel protected and nurtured – that has value,” Teresa said.

Finding inventive ways to source staples such as basic food and toilet paper, and boosting client’s spirits, “that has value too,” she shared.

Teresa said the home care workforce is also ageing. Over 40% of the home care workforce is 50 years or older. About 15% are 60 or older.

“They have their own health issues to deal with in an already horrendous situation,” she said.

The “scaled down” aged care worker retention bonus for community-based staff made them feel they “weren’t considered as valuable”.

“To a workforce that was already struggling, it was a slap in the face,” she said.

Home care workers had to “fight for access to vaccines”, and often had to take unpaid leave for testing because after two years of the pandemic they had no sick leave left.

Teresa said she felt home care workers were “priority FU”.

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