Witnessing an elderly woman with terror in her eyes, shouting incoherently as she struggled in a restraint chair in the corridor of an aged care facility while staff ignored her and attended to paperwork for the facility’s accreditation has led a Charles Sturt University (CSU) nursing academic to question the meaning of the Rudd government’s coming apology to ‘The Forgotten Australians’ who were detained in government welfare institutions in bygone decades.
Dr Maree Bernoth, a lecturer at the CSU School of Nursing and Midwifery
at Wagga Wagga, says that unless there is urgent reform to the delivery of residential aged care, future governments will also end up apologising to the victims of current institutional abuse and neglect.
“The neglected group of Australians who grew up in brutal and loveless institutions deserve the apology from Mr Rudd, to be announced shortly, and I sincerely hope that it assists with their recovery from the traumas of their past,” Dr Bernoth said.
“But the meaning of the apology must come into question, however, as this apology implies that we have learnt from the past and will not perpetrate these conditions on Australian citizens again.
“There is still a group of Australians, who are older and/or have a disability in many residential aged care facilities, who live in environments in which physical and emotional abuse and, sometimes, sexual abuse, occurs.”
Dr Bernoth’s PhD research into what it means to be safe in aged care was presented at the Emerging Health Policy Research Conference at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy in August this year.
“We do not know who is a victim, or in which residential aged care facility, but we do know that abuse and neglect occurs. This is substantiated in my research. Furthermore, the way complaints about this are handled was illustrated on ABC television’s 4 Corners program, The End of the Line, which was shown on Monday 1 June this year,” she said.
She says that the auditing processes must focus on and involve actually observing the residents and care workers, and the emphasis on diverting the accreditation process to ‘folders and paperwork’ must be reduced.
“My research indicates that while the paperwork and the systems are in place, the residents’ incontinence pads remain unchanged for nearly 24 hours; cries for help are ignored as ‘attention seeking behaviour’; the elderly lady is screaming and being held down by a number of staff while having a urinary catheter inserted; and the assistants in nursing bully each other and the residents because of the pressures of time and task and the absence of skilled mentors,” Dr Bernoth said.
“But the elderly and disabled people living in nursing homes will not demand an apology, they will not speak out or cause a fuss, and they are not a group the litigation lawyers are concerned about. Instead, they continue to die in pain and with no dignity.
“When Mr Rudd delivers the apology, he needs to do so with the knowledge that the conditions that traumatised The Forgotten Australians continue to have a large impact on many of our most vulnerable citizens, the frail aged and the disabled.”