Our system of aged care is failing too many of our senior citizens. Last week at a meeting in Stoke-Nelson, we heard more stories of neglect, abuse and poor standards of care for the elderly, following similar stories from previous meetings in Takaka and Levin.
I have been working with our Metiria Turei and Annette King from Labour to listen to the experiences of the elderly, their carers and their families. The inquiry is being undertaken with Grey Power, and it will update our joint 2010 report, which heard 420 submissions from across New Zealand. Sadly, most of the problems we identified in that inquiry have not been resolved.
Inconsistent care and neglect
So far we have heard too many stories of inconsistent care and cases of serious neglect of elderly patients living at home. One of those is 96-year-old Trixie Cotttingham. She had 90 minutes per week of home help to support her in being able to live independently and to reduce the risk of falling and injuring herself, a major problem for the elderly. But her home care support was cut by National last year, along with thousands of other elderly people across New Zealand. After an outcry, she was allowed 60 minutes of help per week. Recently her home carer arrived late and Trixie had a fall from her walker while preparing breakfast. She ended up in hospital. Thankfully she has recovered, but this experience is all too common for older people.
A major cause is the squeeze on DHB budgets – there is an accumulated shortfall of $1.7 billion in health spending since 2008 under National. As one person said at the Levin meeting, “I am going to be blind before I get to see an eye specialist.”
Funding cuts also result in low pay and poor treatment of staff. Entry level carers often get the minimum wage, with little or no training offered and no career path. The more experienced staff are not adequately rewarded for their skills and experience, or given proper compensation for travelling to patients.
As a result, there is high turnover of staff, little training and the aged care sector is not attractive for young people to enter. The good news is that there has been a successful case for equal pay brought by Kristine Bartlett against the Government, and negotiations on pay have been initiated. But 16 months later, there has been no agreement and carers have still not gained a decent wage.
Lack of accountability
There is also a lack of accountability in the aged care system. There are periodic audits for facilities that are published on the Ministry of Health website, but the system lacks independence and integrity. We need to be better systems for accountability for aged care facilities and home care providers, including feedback from patients.
Many participants talked about the need to connect up agencies in an integrated approach. This could be best achieved with a position to champion the cause of aged care within government. This office would also investigate cases of neglect or abuse. Our 2010 report recommended an Aged Care Commission and the position of a Commissioner. This still hasn’t been implemented.
No pay and zero support
This has been made worse by National’s decision not to pay for care provided by spouses and partners, and then more recently cutting the support provided for home help. This is especially hard for partners who bear most of the burden. The heart-wrenching comments of inquiry participants speak for themselves:
“Family care givers are invisible. Without them the health system will crumble. They are not being supported.”
“I was going to commit suicide because there was no help… I had no one to turn to.”
We need a response
Older people need to be supported to live longer in their own home or to move to suitable local housing for the aged. We have seen that well-designed homes are safer, healthier and warmer. That is usually the best option for the elderly, enabling them to stay in the family and community environment. It is also far cheaper for our health system since it avoids paying for the costs of rest homes.
Meanwhile, the needs are growing, not only through high levels of immigration and an ageing population but also because of the growing demand for treatment for dementia, palliative care, disability care.
Our elderly deserve better. They have rights to care as patients, and they have rights to dignity as valued members of our society. National has had eight years to step up and make real improvements in aged care. We will use this inquiry to ensure the Greens and Labour provide compassionate and effective aged care in the next Government. Only a Labour/Green government can deliver on this. National’s system is a failure.