The sheer number of older Australians living in nursing homes on the coast means they are more likely to be assaulted than those living elsewhere, according to the Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association (CPSA).
In an exclusive interview with YourLifeChoices, CPSA said because coastal regions tended to have more aged care places and the sector was not subjected to staffing ratios, residents there were more vulnerable to abuse from carers.
“Last year, CPSA succeeded in its long-running Freedom of Information (FoI) campaign to obtain statistics from the federal Department of Health showing the incidence of abuse in Gold Coast homes,” said Paul Versteege, the policy coordinator at the pensioner advocacy group.
“What we discovered was horrifying … the incidence of physical and sexual assault on elderly residents is 70 per cent higher than the national average if they live on the Gold Coast.”
He said he would not be surprised if similar statistics applied to Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, NSW coastal cities and southern Western Australia because those areas had higher numbers of nursing homes.
CPSA will continue to apply for region-by-region data using FoI in a bid to map out the incidence of elder abuse in all areas of Australia.
Mr Versteege has long accused governments of trying to cover up the extent of assault in nursing homes, even though statistics are published each year.
“We don’t know where these assaults are happening because of a lack of transparency and the Government’s attempts to underplay them by saying it only happens to a small number of residents, like one per cent,” he said.
It was probably the tip of the iceberg as the number of unreported cases could well be many multiples more, he said.
More concerning is that in proportion to the number of people in aged care, the rate of assaults has more than doubled since 2008.
In the 2016-2017 year, there were 239,370 people in nursing homes and 2853 assaults were reported to the Health Department. That is a rate of 1.2 per cent of the total in care. In 2008-2009, among 228,030 aged care residents, just 1411 cases were reported, or 0.5 per cent.
YourLifeChoices has analysed the rate of increase, as opposed to the rise in the whole numbers of assaults, and found that every two years, the rate has jumped about 0.2 per cent. Based on historical records, it can be reasonably assumed that about 10,000 new aged-care places are added each year. Extrapolating from that, in six years from now, there will be about 300,000 people in residential care and the rate of abused elderly Australians could be roughly 2 per cent. That would translate into the potential assault of 6000 elderly Australians each year.
Mr Versteege said it was conceivable that if nothing changed in the sector, we would see increasingly alarming rates of elder abuse.
“We have been calling for staff-to-patient ratios to be mandated, as they are in hospitals, child care centres and schools. Without sensible ratios, organisations looking to cut costs will continue to overburden staff.
“We understand it must be frustrating when you are overworked to be dealing with a difficult patient who has advanced dementia,” he said. “These staff work under a lot of pressure and sometimes they crack.
“But the Minister for Aged Care, Ken Wyatt, has to this day avoided imposing staff ratios in the sector.
“There is no doubt that a correlation exists between the soaring assault figures and the increasing number of people with dementia needing care. To fix this, we need more care staff and better training so they can understand how to handle these difficult patients, because the status quo is totally unacceptable,” Mr Versteege said.
The growing incidence of assaults in nursing homes is alarming. Yet the Federal Government appears to have underplayed the extent of the harrowing experiences of many vulnerable Australians in a sector it subsidises.
Who is it protecting? The service providers, many of which are private and profitable companies? Did the Government become so confused it put the needs of corporates above those of vulnerable Australians who elected it? How could it have ever thought it was okay not to act more decisively when thousands of elderly people are abused or raped by their carers?
Earlier this month, Aged Care Minister Ken Wyatt’s hand was forced and he shut down the watchdog that was supposed to be guarding the rights of elderly Australians.
The move was precipitated by a review of how the aged care sector is audited, which concluded that the Australian Aged Care Quality Agency could not be trusted to do its job.
The agency’s replacement will be tasked with carrying out recommendations of former ACT Chief Minister Kate Carnell and healthcare specialist Professor Ron Paterson, who conducted the review.
On the topic of protecting aged care residents, the review’s report said: “Evidence to this Review and previous inquiries suggests that the current regulatory environment does not adequately protect the residents of aged care homes from abuse and neglect. The accreditation system does not appear to be sufficiently robust, and the requirement for compulsory reporting is restrictive and of limited value in improving the safety of residents.”
Let’s hope Minister Wyatt wastes no time in implementing reforms, not only to the aged care watchdog, but also to the entire sector. Because, if you are a very elderly and vulnerable person in the care of someone under enormous pressure, you won’t want to wait too long for things to improve so you can feel safe again.
In response to an inquiry from YourLifeChoices, a Department of Health spokesperson said: "The Turnbull Government accepts the broad direction of the Carnell-Paterson Review and is considering the remaining recommendations, including the establishment of an independent Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission to centralise accreditation, compliance and complaints handling. This would include the functions currently undertaken by the Quality Agency."