Who will care for us?

15 August 2011

Written by: Jonathon Wilkinson

‘I wonder what you think about the government’s plan to keep older people at home and not in care?’

These words belong to Joyce, a resident of a retirement village where I work as a community nurse.

Joyce’s question is in response to the current inquiry into aged care in Australia. The government has been forced to reform the aged care sector due to continuing growth in the number of older citizens. At present over one million older Australians utilise aged care services, however that number is expected to quadruple in less than 40 years.

Our lives are longer now due in part to improved medical care, so ways to pay for the costs of these extra years need to be found. The recent Caring for older Australians report highlighted that Australians want to live independently at home for as long as possible. According to a government source quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald ‘the boomers are not going to cop moving into aged care homes’.

I would prefer to remain in my own home until I die but the reality of life at the coal face makes me doubt the new mantra of ageing in place.

Eighty- year old Joyce lives in one of the 90 self contained units in her retirement village and has the option to move into a serviced apartment as she ages.

‘What concerns me is that old people ageing at home are often lonely,’ explains Joyce.

As a resident of the village she has the company of around 200 people of various ages. Her experiences as a former volunteer for ‘meals on wheels’ brought her into contact with many older people living isolated lives in the wider community.

On one occasion she had arrived bearing lunch for a lonely, ageing woman who refused the food explaining that she no longer had any need. The woman had just taken an overdose of sleeping pills.

‘I am concerned that this situation will only worsen if there is more encouragement and inducement for the ageing to remain at home,’ suggested Joyce.

Joyce has learnt first-hand how the company of others benefits the ageing. The residents of the village are mostly widowed women who are well cared for by management, staff and their own families. When they can’t attend to the cooking and cleaning they are able to move into a serviced apartment where they are surrounded by others in the same predicament.

Retirement facilities provide many beneficial activities such as exercise classes, physio visits, productive craft afternoons, and the popular movie sessions. But what I really notice are the strong friendships that develop among the women who gather in the meeting areas drinking tea and catching up on the latest news. These ageing women look out for one another.

As I’m having a cup of tea with Joyce and her friends my pager goes off. It’s from one of the residents. Ninety- year old Harold has fallen over and he can’t get up. I find him lying on the kitchen floor, head nestling the fridge and a pool of blood streaming from a large wound on his forehead. Harold is conscious but complains of pain all the way down his back and into his legs. Fifteen minutes later Harold is in the back of the ambulance and on his way to care.

Joyce is right to be concerned about ageing in place especially now as so many of us live alone. Who will care for us?

Helen Lobato is a final-year Bachelor of Media Studies student at La Trobe University. This piece first appeared on her blog, Allthenewsthatmatters. You can follow her on Twitter: @allmediamatters