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'War of the Worlds' hits aged care

By Peter West - posted Tuesday, 18 August 2020

Like many people my age, I struggle to find anything entertaining these days. Almost everything I like is fattening, illegal, or impossible. So I end up on SBS-TV, affectionately known as "Sex Before Sleep". I am watching War of the Worlds on SBS. And it seems to me that the war against Covid-19 is like a war waged on us by aliens, who hit us at our most vulnerable. That means the poor, the undernourished, and those in aged care.

Australia a success?

We sit in a place of paradox. On one hand, we're told we're lucky to be here. Rates of infection go ever higher in the USA, where Biden's running-mate Kamala Harris says it's Trump's fault that an American dies of the virus every eighty seconds. Brazil's virus death rate is rocketing off the charts. India is an unfolding catastrophe. And none of us could confidently assess the rise of the pandemic in China. So Australia seems to be doing well, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison makes reassuring noises and says 'sorry' about problems in aged care.


But we saw that the virus hits the most vulnerable. And inquiries into aged care expose a running sore. The Royal Commission has seen some dramatic revelations. Geriatrician Joseph Ibrahim pointed out some brutal facts: "Hundreds of residents will die prematurely because people failed to act". The Federal Government failed in its attempt to open discussions with its own adviser, Dr Brendan Murphy, before the Commission , though he was able to make a statement denying the Federal Government's failure to prepare aged care facilities properly for the virus. Its Minister for Aged Care has been missing in action from public discussions for months. Peter Rozen, QC, said the Government had no virus plan for aged care. In fact the Government has issued guidelines, which allow for a lot of room for cunning aged care providers to move. Rozen added that sixty eight per cent of Australian virus deaths had happened in care homes. And the government was too fond of self-congratulation on its efforts.

What went wrong? We can look at what older people in care need and what they get.

What older people need.

"Don't put me in an old folks' home", my Dad said to me. "I hate old people". He was 92 at the time. Old people aren't that interesting. We find it convenient not to think about them a lot, perhaps because we don't feel comfortable confronting our own decline. Thus we put them away in places with a nice name: "Sunny Acres" or "St Mary Magdalen's Home". And thus they are out of sight and out of mind, for most of the population. But most older people are similar to us. They need first-rate food. They need exercise. They need supervised medical care. And they need entertainment. Some of course have mental and physical challenges. There isn't space to go into all the different needs and health challenges they face , but we must remain aware of them.

Many of us in the population at large have injuries. One night years ago I went out jogging to improve my health. And got run down by a car. But I had a reasonable recovery. Just this year, I accidentally bashed my head on a footpath in a park, probably trying to show how fit and strong I was. Most of us bounce back from these things with the help of good medical care, as I did. Older people don't. Sharon Brennan-Olsen says for older people, a broken hip is a death sentence. Falling off a ladder is often a disaster. And thus older people need more care than the rest of us.

Research is coming out aimed at protecting older people, especially men, who seem somewhat more vulnerable than women. There are now articles in press explaining all this in detail. The article I read by Neto et al. stresses an anti-inflammatory diet, avoiding fast food and stressing some protein, fresh fruit and many vegetables. They add to this turmeric; and fish like salmon (or fish oil). And exercise targeted to the needs and interest of people. Then all we need is some good company, maybe some young faces. People these days are well aware how much older folk are excited being around their grandkids. All of this is a challenge in a pandemic, but not impossible.


What older people get

It's clear that older people in 'care' get far less than this. It's easier to keep people quiet, in bed or in an armchair, than have them move around. Some must be restrained from wandering about. Many have mobility issues, so it's hard to manage them. Yet human bodies must work muscles and stretch. In a pandemic, it's all far harder. But we have to try.

There are inspections and audits of aged care homes. But as older teachers know from the days of school inspections, smart operators can fudge an inspection. There are reports of extra staff being put on for the inspection. One source says staff and clients were induced to smile a lot and say they were happy. Any problems were swept under the carpet. The verdict on the audit was that it was all working well. Governments have sent check-lists to aged care homes. They rate their performance a big success, 100 per cent.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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