Hidden Restraints, Unthinkable Assaults: Horrors Of Aged Care System Exposed

As the aged care royal commission kicked off in Sydney this week, harrowing stories emerged of loved ones being left strapped to chairs for hours and workers facing traumatic assaults on the job.

The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety is tasked with examining evidence of substandard aged care, abuse and systematic failures, and to offer recommendations.

Over three days in Sydney, the hearing focused on the use of restraints and medications to manage more than 50 percent of aged care residents who have some form of dementia.

Peter Gray QC -- senior counsel assisting the commission -- said they were some of "Australia's most vulnerable", unable to complain or express their needs.

Like Terry Reeves, father of Michelle McCulla and Natalie Smith.

Michelle McCulla gave testimony about her father's treatment in an aged care residential facility in Sydney. Image: AAP

The 72-year-old has dementia, and spent 10 weeks at Garden View nursing home in Sydney while his wife was on holiday overseas.

Every time McCulla visited her father, she told the hearing on Tuesday he was strapped to his chair -- except for one day when he was “completely unconscious in bed”.

Reeves’ treatment first emerged by disturbing footage broadcast by the ABC, with records later showing he spent up to 14 hours in restraints in one day. 

READ MORE: Left In Soiled Clothes: Family Shocked At Aged Home Care

McCulla told the hearing her family been advised restraints would only be  during peak periods or as a last resort, and never for long. Staff claimed that he would go wandering and at time act aggressively towards workers.

During one visit, McCulla found Reeves in a small room with a line of chairs where “everyone was restrained in lap belts”.

"I crouched down in front of my father, he was asleep, he had his head on his chest, eyes closed, drooling," she said.

“I tried to wake him and I shook his legs. He was shivering.”

McCulla said her family had seen Reeves restrained 30 times during his stay. 

She  recalled another visit where she claimed she found her father asleep with a piece of meat lodged in his throat.

“A lot of nurses walked past and would comment … ‘what’s happened to this man?’,” McCulla told the hearing.  

“Me and my sister were in tears in the central dining room this day, saying, ‘you tell us. He is no longer the man that he came in'.”

READ MORE: Will The Royal Commission Restore Faith In The Aged Care System?

READ MORE: Slaps, Starvation, Maggots ... Aged Care Is Broken And It's Our Job To Fix It

‘Restrained Residents Kept ‘Out Of Sight’

The hearing heard staff at Garden View Aged Care were advised to ensure those residents who were restrained weren’t easily visible.

Gray showed an email sent by a staff clinical nurse educator that read, “it doesn’t look nice when visitors walk in and see the resident being restrained”.

The Merrylands facility director of nursing admitted Reeves had been physically restrained before consent was sought from the family.

Image: Getty

Kenneth Wong, a GP who assessed the 72-year-old when he arrived at the facility, told the commission physical restraints should only be used when there was no other alternative.

He said there was no time limit on their use at the facility and it was up to the nurses' judgement.

Wong also prescribed an anti-psychotic drug to Reeves, but agreed with counsel assisting that it was illogical to do so.

He, too, noted the man had been mobile when he first entered the facility.  

Gray told the hearing it was "uncontroversial" that Reeves walked into the facility a mobile man -- only experiencing difficulty around toileting -- and left in a "severely de-conditioned state with very limited mobility".

Staff Talk About Abuse They Received 

But not all the victims were aged and fragile.

Aged care worker Kathryn Nobes was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress after dealing with an elderly man who allegedly killed a fellow resident.

On Monday, she told the hearing she and a colleague thought the man had fallen over or had a nosebleed when they discovered him with blood on his knees.

Kathryn Nobes gave testimony as an aged care worker dealing with patients during the Royal Commission. PHOTO: AAP

Nobes said patient assaults on workers happened daily. She recounted another shocking incident where a male resident put his hands in his faeces before punching her in the face.

When she told her supervisor, she said they "shrugged their shoulders and said 'that's dementia'."

"I think there is an overriding culture in aged care of simply shrugging it off ... sometimes this meant I had to look after 18 men by myself. I didn't feel safe."

Nobes said staff needed more specialised training to care for those with dementia, to improve tolerance "that this is not a choice but a behaviour caused by this disease".

"I think we also need more training on how to deescalate a potentially dangerous situation," she said.

The Sydney hearing will resume on Monday.

The commission, which began in Adelaide earlier this year, is expected to hold public hearings in all capital cities and several regional locations.

Compiled with reports by AAP. 

Featured image: Getty