Senate debates

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Statements by Senators

Aged Care

12:59 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak today about some of the outstanding work being undertaken by people committed to improving the lives of older Australians—people whose work often sadly goes unrecognised. Recently I was fortunate enough to meet with the acting CEO of Wintringham Specialist Aged Care, Michael Deschepper, and the manager of one of the facility's outfits in Coburg, Kate Rice. Wintringham is an organisation that certainly deserves to be spoken of in the highest possible terms. It was established some quarter of a century ago in response to the frustrations of watching older men and women die in homeless persons' night shelters, unable to access mainstream aged care services. The main aim of this organisation from the outset was simple: its clients were considered 'aged and homeless' rather than 'homeless and aged' and deserved to spend their final years in peace and comfort, where they felt safe.

The problem that Brian Lipmann, the founder and now CEO of Wintringham, realised when he was a social worker was that many residential services were unwilling to take people who did not have the money for an accommodation bond. So, beginning with two hostels Wintringham flourished into the imposing specialist aged care organisation it is today, with 280 beds across several suburbs, including Williamstown, Coburg and Avondale Heights, in Victoria. Their commitment to social justice is unparalleled and I could not agree more with their belief that aged care services should not be deemed a privilege but rather a fundamental human right. Such services should not be dependent one's bank balance. This is the inspiring social justice prerogative that drives Wintringham.

What they achieved is nothing short of extraordinary. The organisation has found that as soon as older people are given a home their life expectancy and general health soars. But of course it is about much more than that. What Wintringham provides is a sense of purpose to continue living, with a future to look forward to. These people no longer live in fear of being attacked, of having to scramble to find their next meal, unsure of what will happen to them.

What is incredible about Wintringham is that it actually expanded the services it offers beyond residential care to community work as well, helping people to maintain tenancies and providing outreach to those who are struggling to find a home. Their subsidiary company, Wintringham Housing, manages and develops their significant holdings of independent living units. These housing units are reserved for people over the age of 50 who meet particular criteria and what this means is Wintringham provides a continuum of care that they can be proud of. In the process they are setting an example that I certainly hope is followed in other states and territories around Australia. It is of course a hard model to replicate because of the low margins of the business and the staffing skills required due to client behaviours. But really if we want to ensure that older homeless people are properly looked after then we need others to follow suit.

Wintringham has a dedicated clinical team to assist with the health and well-being outcomes of older homeless people as well as an in-house meals production team. Their staff are prepared for all contingencies. They are trained to deal with people who exhibit challenging and sometimes violent behaviours. What impressed me upon visiting one of the residential facilities in Coburg was not only the outstanding level of care provided to residents but the positivity and enthusiasm exhibited by staff. It was clear that they enjoyed working there and I was told one of the reasons for this was the generous conditions they enjoy and the strong sense of purpose their work provides.

Their client work is very different to other aged care service providers. As I told Michael when we were touring, I have always believed that an important measure of any society is how it looks after its most vulnerable citizens, and older people without a permanent home are indeed amongst our most vulnerable and at-risk. The 550 home care packages and 605 housing units that the body runs certainly extend the lives of many older people. It improves their physical condition and, to put it simply, it provide a home until stumps. This homeless cohort of people in residential care have been hit severely by this government's heartless cut to the dementia supplement, which was so important for looking after these clients. It is yet another example of this government's heartless actions since it came to office.

I was also fortunate enough recently to visit the National Ageing Research Institute in Parkville, Melbourne, and what an experience it turned out to be. For the past four decades, this institute has been bringing research to life to improve health outcomes that change the lives of older Australians. NARI is committed to enhancing aged care practice as well as to guiding policy to invest in solutions for positive ageing for senior Australians. I was particularly interested to learn that they are the largest independent ageing research organisation in Australia and that they work on such a diverse range of matters that affect senior Australians. One area of research that NARI has been involved in, and it is of particular interest to me, is its work on tele-health solutions, and I have spoken about tele-health on many occasions in this place.

What we want and what we need to do is confront the challenges that Australia faces with an ageing population. We need to innovate and embrace the full potential of new technologies, something that is beyond the scope of this government. Reducing health spending will not be easy. Cuts to health funding or further cost-shifting to consumers could have a severe impact on the lives of many Australians. What we need to do is investigate and invest in tele-health, because that can transform people's lives. Instead of admissions to hospital or residential aged care facilities, we can have monitoring of older Australians in their own homes. They can live where they want, where they feel comfortable, where they can have communication and where they have community support. That will all help to combat the social exclusion that many unfortunately suffer within our community.

The technology has come along in leaps and bounds. CSIRO's Geoff Haydon has said that modern equipment enables professionals to:

… Manage and monitor people as though they were in a retirement village, while they're still in their own home.

NARI have engaged in numerous telehealth projects, which I learnt about during my visit, and the work they have done demonstrates the benefits of embracing this technology.

Their Ageing Well at Home with Broadband project involved the development of a home exercise program using gaming technology delivered via the National Broadband Network. Done in conjunction with numerous bodies including the Moreland City Council, Microsoft and the Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society, the 18-month project enabled older people to engage in virtual exercise classes of 20 people. The project reduced their need for healthcare services, extended their active life and promoted social inclusion—something, as I said before, that is currently sadly lacking in our community. The sky is the limit for the hardworking people at NARI. I was also particularly impressed with their Rural Carers Online project, which experimented with a computer intervention, aimed at reducing social isolation and depression amongst older carers. Depressive symptoms were reduced amongst participants. They identified many other social, psychological and physical benefits. They well and truly benefited from this particular program. The main recommendation from this study was to conduct a larger, randomised controlled trial of the interventions and I certainly hope that more work is undertaken in this vital area.

Of course NARI's work extended far beyond telehealth. They have conducted some fascinating work on how we can detect whether a person will develop dementia before they actually start exhibiting symptoms. I certainly intend to stay abreast of this research, which is asking whether we can one day use evidence of tangles in the brain to halt the disease before it takes hold. In my role as shadow parliamentary secretary for aged care, I will continue to work closely with the shadow ageing minister, Shayne Neumann, to change the attitude about ageing and to ensure that older people are engaged in these discussions and be the beneficiaries. I will continue to hold this government to account for its lack of heart, concern and interest in aged care and ageing in this country. (Time expired)