In the last week of September, aged care sector nurses resolved to cease work at a Warnambool aged care facility due to the crisis state of the sector, particularly in relation to the suitability of care of residents whose mental condition caused them to act violently towards staff. The nurses had made about 200 formal complaints about violence towards staff by one particular resident but the management of the private for-profit aged care did not resolve the problem. Nurses demanded removal of the resident from the facility or face a cessation of work by nurses on health and safety grounds.
For any staff in the aged care sector to collectively resolve to stop work is extremely rare and indicative of the crisis in the aged care sector faced by both residents and staff.
The aged care system is funded in such a way that owners of a facility may be reluctant to move a violent resident because that resident has paid a substantial amount of money (up to $550,000)on entry to the facility and the owner profits from the interest on this resident bond money. Or the owner knows that there is nowhere else for the resident to go because staffing levels and special needs trained staff are so inadequate in the aged care sector, due to inadequate government funding and the profit motive being the driving force in a growing privately owned proportion of the sector
Government Funding Cuts
The level of care for residents with special needs received a recent setback when the Abbott Government cut the ‘Dementia Supplement’ payment of about $18 per resident per day. The implications of this seemingly small budget cut by the government were brought home to me the other day when I visited an aged care place to meet some staff. They were not nurses but Carers, the people who do most of the ‘hands on’ care duties such as toileting, showering, making beds, feeding of residents. One of them said she was on light duties. A resident with dementia had grabbed her by the hand and when she tried to withdraw from his grasp, he twisted her arm causing severe ligament and shoulder damage. She was working by herself in a single resident room and by the time other staff heard her calls for help the damage had been done. The resident had no idea that he was inflicting pain and no idea of his own personal strength. As with most dementia residents, their behaviour becomes more unpredictable as their condition advances. Yet staffing levels determined by the owners do not increase to take account of residents’ changing needs and the health and safety needs of the staff.
Solidarity of Aged Care Staff
What heartened me about this situation was the high level of support from other staff for their injured co-Carer. They asked what else they could do to accommodate her light duties and they discussed what they could do as a group to ensure adequate staffing levels of care for residents with deteriorating mental conditions. They discussed how each other was coping with the demands of the job generally. They made suggestions as to what to do to overcome specific problems caused by short staffing and high workloads. Their conversation was one of caring for each other and residents in a very difficult and financially unrewarding occupation.
As they moved away to resume the last part of their shifts or in some cases clock off after a ‘short shift’, I wondered how long it would be before they too took the ‘road less travelled by’ and like the Warnambool nurses, took action – in their case for more staffing.