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Australia's tsunami of the aged

By Murray Hunter - posted Friday, 17 January 2014


Today in Australia, many elderly people are being moved out of their homes into aged care facilities. With 14.7% of Australia's population over the age of 65, which is expected to be 24% by 2056, a crisis in aged care is occurring, as life expectancies are at an all time high. Australia has one of the highest elderly dependency ratios in the world at 21.5%, which brings up a multitude of issues relating to the principals behind palliative care, patient rights, and the right to be released from pain and suffering. There is such a wide spectrum of elderly with different needs, ranging from people who are just naturally aging, to those in need of high levels of palliative care due to physical and/or mental disabilities, the situation is extremely complex and requires multiple approaches. The issue of aged care also has mammoth economic and fiscal consequences, and such a discussion also requires a frank and honest examination of Australian social values in relation to aging.

Aged care was largely ignored as an issue in the last federal election. Without being somehow exposed to the aged care system, it is very easy to dismiss the issue as something unimportant and of little direct concern.

However nothing could be further from the truth from both human and socio-economic perspectives.

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An ABC Lateline report by Margot O'Neil after a one year investigation, aired mid last year, found that many residents were left for long periods of time in faeces and urine, were dehydrated, subject to arbitrary and oppressive practices like restrictive diets, verbal abuse and rough treatment, had inadequate pain relief, and even suffered from undiagnosed bone fractures and infections from falls. Many suffer bedsores from not being properly dried, which causes great pain. In addition, 20-50% of residents in aged care facilities were undernourished. There are not enough doctors around Australia to call on all residents, where doctors are reluctant to take on new residents as patients.

According to Margot O'Neil, Palliative Care Australia claims that only one in five residents receive adequate palliative care, where powerful anti-psychotic medicines are used to both sedate and restrain residents. Up to 60% of residents in aged care facilities are on some type of anti-psychotic medicine.

Interviews with residents, family, and workers by the author confirmed this bleak picture of the human side of aged care. Antibiotics are so frequently used in some aged care facilities, that there is a great risk that many bacteria will become resistant to antibiotics, leading to the breeding of superbugs.

Boredom is the greatest problem for many. Some cannot accept they are in an aged care facility, and still believe their life should be as before. This often prompts family members to treat their parents like children and stop listening to them, especially when talking to their parent becomes like talking to a stranger. A number of residents have no visitors.

Many with dementia develop anger, and continually try to escape, while others mentally return to happier times in their lives, some even forgetting how to speak English, returning to their native tongue. 

More than 2250 residents in aged care facilities were allegedly assaulted during 2011-12. Many of these assaults against women were of a sexual nature. According to a Federal Government report these assaults are on the increase. Issues of sexuality for the elderly are almost completely ignored leading to some emotional problems with residents.

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Even more astounding was the regularity of cover-ups in aged care facilities over assaults, neglect, and even deaths.

According to a palliative care worker interviewed, depression and fear can almost be "felt" within some aged care facilities where she has worked. She went on to say that "although there are some humorous aspects to the job, some residents would say each day, 'I hope I die today'." Many are embarrassed in the helpless predicament they find themselves in, where they rely on others to do simple things like go to the toilet. This leads to great depression, loss of self esteem, dignity, and will to live on.

According to the accounts of those who spoke to the author, some residents are just left to die by various means, particularly if there are no next of kin. One worker told the story of a lady who was in deep fear pleading to get out of the facility, when later on that night she passed away.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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