Retirees’ calls for help are going unanswered

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The federal government’s My Aged Care helpline describes itself as “starting point on your aged care journey”, the main means of obtaining information about government-funded aged care services. But in the past year, an average of 118 calls a day have gone unanswered.

In 2018–19, nearly 43,000 calls went unanswered, according to figures provided to the Senate, and more than 110,000 calls went unanswered over a three-year period.

The service is largely only contactable via website or phone, although in 2019, the government put $7.4 million towards a ‘system navigators’ trial that will pilot face-to-face options until June 2020.

As the aged care royal commission continues to investigate the shortcomings of care throughout Australia, the information provided to the Senate has alarmed Aged and Community Services Australia, which represents not-for-profit aged care providers.

“Access to information is critical for elderly Australians, or loved ones calling on their behalf,” said chief executive Patricia Sparrow.

“The current system is based on only a few people needing face-to-face support with the emphasis on website and phone contact, but what we’ve learnt is that lots of people need that face-to-face support.”

YourLifeChoices research shows that 62 per cent of older Australians regard aged care planning as either very important or important, but almost 50 per cent (49.63 per cent) of the 3397 respondents to the Ensuring Financial Security in Retirement Survey 2019 said they had no idea about the costs of aged care and how much they might need in their later years. The need for information is of vital importance.

An interim report from the aged care commission last year, titled Neglect, noted “many people in their 80s and 90s find [the phone and internet system] frightening, confronting and confusing”.

Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck defended My Aged Care, saying the contact centre had a “strong record of answering calls quickly” and maintained the average time to answer a call was less than 30 seconds.

“It is likely that a proportion of the unanswered calls were abandoned because the caller had phoned the wrong number or changed their mind,” he said.

Mr Colbeck said the government was exploring opportunities for further face-to-face support – in addition to the $7.4 million system navigator trial “to help vulnerable seniors navigate the aged care system and access services”.

The opposition’s aged care spokesperson, Julie Collins, told media that her office and those of other MPs were regularly approached by “desperate” people who could not get through to My Aged Care.

“People shouldn’t have to come to an MP’s office to be able to navigate a government system,” she said.

Council on the Ageing (COTA) has long been campaigning for a Centrelink-type shopfront to provide information on aged care services. Chief executive Ian Yates said his organisation believed “very strongly” there should be a face-to-face capacity.

In its pre-budget submission to the federal government, it is calling for greater choice, simplicity and more meaningful support for older people, with reform in health, aged care, and employment sectors priorities.

“We have submitted that significant funding must be allocated both to continue current reform initiatives and expedite urgent matters, including the reduction of home care package wait times to 60 days or less,” Mr Yates said.

“The government must respond by creating comprehensive, easily accessible information, assessment and case management services and programs to empower older Australians and provide the information they need to make and achieve their choices about their care and support.”

Have you planned for aged care? Or are you among the majority of older Australians who are yet to explore the sector?

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Written by Janelle Ward


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