When Carol* goes to work in an aged care home secure dementia ward, there’s a consistent problem.
“At least once or twice a week, my shift is understaffed,” she said.
That means some residents cannot have their overnight continence pads changed until after lunchtime, with staff too busy on the 5:00am to 1:30pm day shift.
“They could be left in a wet pad or whatnot. And it’s just not fair for them,” Carol said.
“They deserve so much better. But [we’re] only one person … we can only do what we can.”
Carol’s story is just one of hundreds recorded on a new website that allows people to anonymously make reports about aged care facilities.
The Aged Care Watch site, administered by the United Workers Union, has recorded nearly 2000 reports since it launched in July.
The site takes anonymous complaints and posts them on a map of Australia.
Users can click on dots in any area and see the details of the complaint, including the name of the aged care residence and what is alleged to have occurred.
The union said it launched the site to raise awareness, give aged care workers a space to tell their stories, and push for more funding for care time.
“We can actually show the crisis, what is happening in aged care with the staffing,” Carol said.
“I think this tool is so useful for all us workers in aged care. To get our voices heard.”
Dissatisfaction with official complaints process
Most of the reports on the site focus on understaffing and unfilled shifts, and ask the user what the impact of that issue was.
A typical response could include staff missing their breaks, residents left soiled for extended periods, or distressed residents.
The reports can also state whether the complaint came from an aged care worker, a resident, or a family member.
“The reason this site has come about is because so many people, be they staff or residents in aged care homes or family members … are so dissatisfied with the current complaints process,” Sarah Russell from advocacy group Aged Care Matters said.
The government’s Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission (ACQSC) has a well-established complaints process.
Its funding was substantially boosted in this year’s Budget, part of a $300 million spend “to address failures in care and increase the capability [of the ACQSC]”.
But advocates say many residents and families believe the ACQSC process favours aged care providers.
“That has been a complaint that I’ve heard over and over again,” said Ms Russell, who has spent years advocating on behalf of residents and families to improve the aged care system.
“The people who are making the complaints feel that they’re not heard and it’s not acted upon satisfactorily from their perspective.
“We were hoping the royal commission might fix some of these issues. And six months later, after the final report has been presented to government, we are still finding similar complaints.”
The aged care royal commission was also critical of the ACQSC, saying it had “not demonstrated strong and effective regulation”.
“The regulator adopted a light-touch approach to regulation when a more rigorous system of continuous monitoring and investigation was required for aged care,” the commission’s executive summary said.
In a statement, Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services Richard Colbeck said:
“The Morrison government’s continued investment in the [ACQCS] in the 2021/22 Budget was aimed at strengthening its regulatory capabilities.
“It is important that anyone with a concern about the quality of care and services being provided at an aged care service raises these issues directly with the provider, or alternatively with the commission.”
Site could have ‘unsubstantiated claims’
Aged care provider peak body Leading Age Services Australia (LASA) also expressed reservations about the site.
“There are plenty of social media platforms available where people can provide feedback and raise issues about aged care services,” chief executive Sean Rooney said in a statement.
“These sites are often the host of unsubstantiated claims and complaints about a workplace, which have been published without any opportunity for recourse by the subject of the complaint.”
Mr Rooney said the site’s shortcomings were identified by the administrators in their disclaimer.
“Even the UWU’s own complaint-reporting website acknowledges the information placed on the site ‘may contain errors or inaccuracies’ and that the UWU does not independently verify the information,” he said.
But the UWU said it was confident the site could withstand any challenge.
“We’ve obviously received legal advice, but the best legal advice is, tell the truth,” UWU’s aged care director Carolyn Smith said.
“Aged care workers say to us … ‘Finally we’ve got a chance, a way to say to people, ‘this is what’s going on in aged care. This is what’s going on in the facilities that we work in’.”
Ms Russell said the site gave residents and families something they have not had in the past: transparency.
“You can go to the area in which you live and you can click on it and you can perhaps find the home that you’re considering for your relatives. And you can see what’s going on there,” she said.
Understaffing puts everyone at risk: worker
Aged care worker Emma Bowers made a report after she was attacked by a resident in July.
She said that while she did not have an issue with her workplace specifically, she wanted to make the report to let the public know what impacts understaffing could have.
For part of a shift on a high-care dementia unit in July, she was the only staff member to care for 20 residents.
After putting washing away in a room, she was attacked by a male resident.
“There was blood everywhere and I thought he was bleeding until [I saw] the blood running down my face,” she said.
She managed to free herself and lead the man away from other residents, but it took 10 minutes for another nurse to come and help her.
A week later, she tried to return to work but was too shaken to finish her shift. She has not returned to work since.
“I couldn’t stop crying. So I said to myself: ‘This is no good for me because it’s no good for the residents and for my colleagues’,” she said.
“People must know what it’s like working on the floor [with] understaffing because the safety of the residents and the safety of us is at risk. And what happened to me, I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.”
*Real name not used to protect identity.
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