ONE of the biggest impacts of COVID-19 has been the havoc reaped on our aged population.
So will our most vulnerable be better protected next time a pandemic or another disaster strikes?
More than 665 aged-care residents have died from COVID-19 in Australia, with outbreaks in about 220 homes and facilities.
Restriction of visits at aged-care homes has severed vital family ties, caused trauma and opened a whole pandora’s box of neglect because the frail and elderly were largely “out of sight” for months on end.
It is timely that a royal commission into aged care released its final report on October 1, making urgent recommendations to fix deplorable conditions at some nursing homes during the pandemic.
The commission report said levels of depression, anxiety, confusion, loneliness and suicide risk in residents had increased since March.
The commission recommended an immediate funding boost to ensure friends and family can visit elderly residents, and so infection control experts can be deployed in all homes.
It found the Federal Government made efforts early on in the pandemic to implement advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee.
However, the measures were “in some respects insufficient to ensure preparedness”.
“Confused and inconsistent messaging from providers, the Australian Government, and state and territory governments emerged as themes in the submissions we have received,” the report said.
“All too often, providers, care recipients and their families, and health workers did not have an answer to the critical question – who is in charge?
“At a time of crisis, such as this pandemic, clear leadership, direction and lines of communication are essential.”
Catholic Health Australia welcomed the royal commission’s recommendations and has encouraged the Federal Government to act swiftly on implementing recommendations so the nation is better prepared to deal with any further surges.
“I want to thank the commissioners for holding this important inquiry into what has been a national tragedy,” CHA chief executive Pat Garcia said.
“We know the tragic consequences delays can have on this vulnerable cohort of society, we have all seen the ghastly tally and we must do whatever we can to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
“Our members continue to work with the Government in protecting the elderly in our care, and to treat them with compassion and dignity.”
Australian leaders need to look widely for solutions – and one area of major concern is the huge backlog of applications for home-care packages among the nation’s elderly.
About 50,000 Australians are in aged care only because they can’t get support to stay at home.
During the pandemic the staggering under-supply of home-care packages only exacerbated the number of our elderly exposed to poor nursing home conditions at the worst possible time.
Council on the Ageing chief executive Ian Yates said the fact that one in five people in aged care could not remain safely at home, meant “the system has let them down, and let their families down”.
During the royal commission’s hearings, a call was made for a dramatic shift to support older Australians to stay at home for longer.
Senior Counsel Assisting Peter Gray QC told the inquiry the overwhelming majority of elderly people would prefer to age in their own homes.
The commission was told that Australia has one of the highest percentages of elderly people living in institutional care of any developed country.
The commission found the understandable restrictions on visits to aged-care homes had caused tragic, irreparable and lasting effects.
“Visits from family and friends are critical to the physical, mental and emotional health and wellbeing of people living in residential aged care and also their friends and families,” the report said.
In all but extreme cases, blanket bans on visitation were unacceptable and should be both explained and justified, it added.
“(Residents) should certainly not find themselves in their more vulnerable days facing their fears of the pandemic without the comfort and support of their friends and families,” the report said.
The commission called on the Federal Government to set up a system where providers can apply for staff funding needed to facilitate visits.
The commission also called for more Federal funding to boost allied health and mental health services, and set up a national aged-care advisory body.
It recommended infection experts in all homes as a condition of accreditation.
Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck said the Government accepted all recommendations and he pledged an immediate $40.6 million in extra funding for the sector, including $10.8 million for leadership training of senior nurses.