A New Voice For An Old Problem

Brien Cree, Managing Director/Executive Chairman of Radius Care, shares his opinion about why the sector needs an Aged Care Commissioner, and what he expects from this position.

This March, we finally welcome New Zealand’s first Aged Care Commissioner, Carolyn Cooper. That’s good news – for the first time, we’ll have someone representing the aged care sector at the government table. We desperately need this voice. Our sector has been under immense pressure and there are more challenges ahead.

It’s a fact. New Zealand is getting old. By 2051, it’s estimated that there will be 1.18 million kiwis aged 65 and over. Older people are expected to make up 26% of the population. This shift in age, and subsequently labour, means it’s time we asked ourselves a question we’ve overlooked for too long;

New Zealand is a great place to grow up, but is it the best place to grow old?

Chronic gaps in our health system

COVID-19 has forced us to confront some ugly truths about our health system. Our rest homes and hospitals are stretched to capacity – and as a result the care provided for older people hasn’t been consistent.

Almost a fifth of complaints to the Health and Disability Commissioner (HDC) in the past year involved people over 65. They were often made by worried and disappointed family members. Under immense pressure and staff shortages, care can lapse. For an individual, this is devastating, but it’s also important to understand that the underlying issues are sector wide and systemic. Unprecedented growth in the over 65 group will place heavy demand for health and disability services in years to come.

We’re hiring! (but where are all the people?)

The staff shortage is no longer a looming crisis; it’s out of control. In my opinion, the government has fallen behind in addressing this problem. It saddens and worries me to see staff burned out, distressed and exhausted. Before they dedicate themselves to looking after anyone else, they must have time to look after themselves.

We need carers, cooks, activities co-ordinators, occupational therapists, experienced management teams, but most of all; we need nurses. Providing seniors with the quality of care they deserve takes genuine commitment, yet we have nurses working double shifts and weekends.

I’ve said this many times, and I will say it again: We need to get more nurses in the country, not just in aged care facilities but also across the whole health sector, because the staff-to-resident ratios are hurting both staff and aged care residents alike.

Let’s look at some of the barriers to building our nurse workforce:

  • Chronic underfunding.
  • Lack of pay parity for nurses working in different areas of the healthcare system. Aged care operators struggle to pay Registered Nurses the same as DHBs because we’re not funded enough.
  • Longstanding immigration barriers such as onerous health checks and the inability to accept certain international practicing certificates. The horror stories around these barriers are numerous. We have nurses sleeping overnight outside medical centres as they try to get their residency visa medical checks.
  • Covid-19 immigration settings. Nurses already in the country have been facing visa uncertainty. And it’s frustratingly difficult for overseas nurses to move here too. The government didn’t act fast enough with nurse recruitment and retention in the early phase of the pandemic, and now unfortunately New Zealand must compete with other countries facing the same situation.

These systemic issues and the fragmented system will hit us very hard within the next few years.

It’s time we had someone sort it out.

It’s time that the role that aged care facilities play is taken more seriously and supported with much-needed investment. Think about it: The sector offers 40,000 beds across 600 facilities nationally. District health boards manage 13,000 beds.

That’s why I welcomed the news of having an Aged Care Commissioner. As long as the role doesn’t end up being just lip service or another level of bureaucracy, I see it as a step forward, an opportunity for the sector to finally have a voice.

We need a commissioner with enforcement powers. Someone who can listen to intense complaints and represent the sector at the government table. Someone with a result-oriented, forward-looking approach and the capabilities to make recommendations to the Parliament.

Most importantly, the Aged Care Commissioner needs to understand and articulate how systemic issues are causing pain for older people and their families. And then work together with the government, the sector, the unions and the New Zealand Aged Care Association to make change – rapidly.

The change should truly enable our sector to provide the safe, consistent, culturally appropriate, high-quality care that all older New Zealanders deserve. It’s a role with lots of expectations, but reasonable ones. And I, along with the whole sector, will hold my breath.

About Mason Head

Content Creator and Publication Lead at Eldernet

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