The aged care scandal: Demand justice for seniors!

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Seniors are organising! Edith Morgan is an activist with the Older Persons Action Centre. Photo by Alison Thorne.

Late last year, the plight of 88 year old Alice Croser, found confused and distressed at Sydney’s Central railway station, shocked the nation. Alice had been put on the train by her granddaughter in Adelaide to live in Sydney with her 59 year old son. But David didn’t want her, either: his mother, partially blind and suffering early dementia, was “a 24-hour hazard” which he couldn’t cope with. The tabloid press shrieked “Abandoned!” and condemned the family for being so heartless.

But for most Australians, the Crosers’ dilemma hit home. In a society where the quality of care is measured by a person’s bank account, the prospect of  growing old or caring for an elder is scary. By the time Alice Croser’s story made news, aged care was already a national scandal. Starting with the closure of Melbourne’s Riverside Nursing Home in March, images of hellholes came across the daily media like a horror show: kerosene baths to treat scabies, ant infested beds, the stench of urine, lethal doses of medication administered by unqualified staff, malnutrition, very lonely people and very desperate relatives.

Caring for the rich. We live in a world ruled by the bottom line. People’s capacity to produce commodities and add to the profits of bosses is the only measure of their value. Older people just don’t count for much. Once they can no longer contribute toward those profits by volunteering their labour to the community, caring for other elders and the sick or minding their grandchildren, they’re utterly worthless.

However seniors with assets do count, as very valued customers. By 2040, a quarter to a third of the population will be 65 or over (it’s currently 13%). An investor’s dream! And with a wave of John Howard’s wand, it has come true. In 1997 he deregulated the aged care industry, sending nursing home fees through the roof. Meanwhile in Victoria, in a secret arrangement two years earlier, former Premier Jeff Kennett had already started feeding the industry to the profiteers. By 1998, he had privatised 1500 public nursing home beds. Three thousand more were ready to be served up after the 1999 state election, but the electorate booted him out of office.

Corporate players now control the service. Today’s biggest nursing home proprietor is Doug Moran, former adviser to Howard on aged care. He scored most of the nursing beds from Kennett’s platter. By 1998, he owned 6000 across Australia and has bought up more in the United Kingdom.

Moran explained a phenomenon in aged nursing: “After World War II, there were a lot of corner milk bars that had high costs, but gradually these faded out and were replaced by supermarkets. This is what is happening to the nursing home industry.” From capitalist cannibalism, a growing niche market has appeared: “five-star“ accommodation for the ageing affluent. Thanks to Howard’s deregulation, owners can charge whatever they like. According to Graeme Croft, an emerging tycoon: “You’ve got billions of dollars that will transfer from one generation to another…The chances are that even if the person going into the home hasn’t got the money, other family members will.” For up to $120 a day and an entry fee of anything from $50,000 to $150,000, the well-heeled enjoy gourmet meals, in-house theatre, luxurious private rooms with en suite bathrooms, a swimming pool and more.

Paid for by workers. What’s being set up, says Edith Morgan from the Older Persons Action Centre (OPAC), is “a two-tier system: homes for the poor and homes for the rich.” And those paying for all of it are working people. In Victoria alone, taxpayers are subsidising operators like Moran and Croft at $2 million a year — thanks to Premier Steve Bracks who honoured his predecessor’s deals.

But the shakedown doesn’t end there. Under the Howard Government’s accreditation régime, nursing homes that fail to meet the “rigorous” standards are supposed to lose their government subsidies, and close. If implemented, this would to some extent get rid of shady operators. But the Government lacks commitment to apply its own rules. Although nursing homes had three years to get up to scratch, those which didn’t were granted a further 6-month extension. Cold comfort for the residents forced to live with these conditions!

Before this system of accreditation was introduced, anybody could open up an aged care facility. All they had to do was demonstrate that they had the required number of beds for the establishment. But in a system taken over by corporate operators, the new scheme also spells Crisis. Nationally, about 700 homes with fewer than 40 beds have been identified as financially unviable. The result: thousands of residents are being tossed out of their homes.

Sydney’s Manly-Mosman area has lost well over 300 beds, because small proprietors lack the capital to upgrade. Melbourne is short nearly 4000 beds, mainly in its working class suburbs. The highly publicised closure of Riverside showed what bed closures actually involve. With nowhere to go, the residents were shunted off to St Vincents Hospital until an alternative could be found — causing great distress for the residents and their families and costing $1 million for wage earners in taxes. Bed closures are blowing out an already critical shortage of affordable care. Public hospitals have become congested halfway houses, and the strain is felt throughout the system — including the emergency units that have to turn away ambulances.

Another dumping ground for the displaced elderly is the family. Women of the baby boomer generation are the primary carers. With no personal resources, they find their every moment consumed with this enormous responsibility — all the while being confronted with what might be in store for them. This huge population of 40 and 50 year olds is also well-named “the sandwich generation.”

Nurses are leaving the industry. “Sarah,” a nurse of 10 years’ experience, told ABC’s 7.30 Report about her experience of running the night shift, on her own, in an aged care hostel. She was in charge of 52 people, including some with dementia. She now faces deregistration after a diabetic resident in her care slipped into unconsciousness. She had overlooked him. When she checked him in the morning, she couldn’t assess his condition because she hadn’t seen him before. Her story is horrifically common. So are the speed-ups for attending to residents, the increase in non-nursing duties such as mopping the floors or washing residents’ clothing, the rise in work-related  injuries, the employment of untrained staff and the rotten pay. The criminally low worker-to-resident ratio results in wrong medications, residents left longer in bed, less food and variety in the diet. In fact, meals are so bad that McDonald’s seized the opportunity with an ad that goes like this: In a nursing home, dinner is the same old slop. The rebellious residents carry out an elaborate diversion for the staff and send out Doris, in her motorised wheelchair, to the local Big M for take-aways.

These conditions are as catastrophic for the workers as they are for the residents and families. When the Federal Government shut Riverside, its 79 nurses lost their jobs. Months later, they were still waiting for the $319,000 owed them in wages and entitlements.

There is an alternative. Contrary to government scaremongering, a hellhole or the street are not the only options for our elders who need care. There’s plenty of money to go around — it’s just in the wrong hands!

In Cuba, wealth is not plentiful as it is here (thanks to centuries of colonialism and then Washington’s 42 year old embargo), but the economy is in the hands of the people, serving their needs. From cradle to grave, no one is denied their dignity or their material and psychological wellbeing. Elders are regarded as treasures, valued for their lifelong participation in Cuba’s productive and cultural life. Respected for their knowledge, wisdom and contribution, they live out their final years with their community. In this workers’ state, where private property was wiped out in the 1959 Revolution, there is no economic basis for treating people any other way.

Cuba shows us what we can achieve here. But like our Cuban sisters and brothers, we’ll have to fight for it. Australia’s seniors are already vocal critics of big business governments like Howard’s — for stealing the well-deserved pleasure from their final years, after they’ve built society’s institutions, industries and wealth. Organisations such as OPAC actively confront the myth that the aged should live in passive senility. Older people never stop contributing. They continue to volunteer their precious time and skills to necessary institutions like hospitals and nursing homes, while being accused by big business of sapping the economy! They are prominent in the multi-aged crowds that demand fundamental change in our time  — from S11 protests against global capitalism to marches for Aboriginal justice. The potential power is enormous, as ageing baby boomers swell the ranks with their accumulated knowledge and diverse talents.

Let’s demand: an end to media stereotyping of older people — especially women — as useless, childlike and dependent; a guaranteed pension at a livable wage for all; free healthcare at all levels; free, top-quality public housing; free aged care and support services, controlled by elders. A fruitful and secure life for seniors would enrich all of society. Old and young unite! We have a lifetime to enjoy — full of respect, dignity and comfort!

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