Slaps, Starvation, Maggots... Aged Care Is Broken And It's Our Job To Fix It
“Hello Gary. I’ve just woken from a nap, so I’m feeling lazy. Peel me a grape,” Douglas, who’s in his 80s, says to me.
“Mae West,” I shoot back. “That’s her line.”
“I know it is,” Douglas retorts. “I gave it to her!”
When I met him at Christmas I was greeted with: “Merry Christmas and Happy Gonorrhoea!”
Even though we always meet at his house, he’ll often say to me: “I’ll be wearing a frangipani in my hair so you can spot me!"
We’ve been having this repartee fortnightly for a year.
It’s part of a volunteer program I’ve participated in now for the past two years. The program, run by the charity ACON, matches LGBTQI volunteers with LGBTQI elders who may be isolated, lonely or vulnerable. Douglas is my third client. The program gives elderly gay people like Douglas a buddy -- someone who can empathise, relate, and connect them to their community. In Douglas’ lifetime, being gay in Australia was illegal.
Our repartee and relationship is a rare aged care good news story. It’s worlds apart from the news story, reported this week, that an elderly resident in a Bupa aged care home was found with maggots in his head.
The story, which happened at the Bupa-run Eden facility, is both disgusting and heartbreaking. Government inspections show a decline in standards at the Eden facility over the past few years, since Bupa took over.
The result is that nobody notices when an elderly man’s wound is crawling with maggots. That could be your granddad. Your dad. Your brother. All his family and friends might now be dead. He might be totally alone so nobody notices, or cares, if maggots eat him alive.
How we treat our most vulnerable, our downtrodden, our powerless, is a barometer of what kind of society we are.
I believe that a good measure of a society is how it treats its gay people, women, children, people of colour, refugees -- anybody who hasn’t benefited from the structural privileges of power. But older people are too often omitted from this list. It isn’t a “sexy” issue.
But we’ll all be old one day; it is in no way a “minority group.”
In other countries, such as Japan, older people are revered. Elders are held in high esteem within Aboriginal communities. But within the Australian state system, old people are being abused or neglected.
That’s why we now have a Royal Commission into the aged care sector. It’s due to provide an interim report by 31 October 2019. Halloween. The scare stories, though, are already here. Slaps. Starvation. Maggots. It’s clear action is needed.
But when we say action is needed, we always expect someone else to act -- some state-run body to take up the onus of responsibility or some not-for-profit to come in and pick up the neglected elderly who’ve slipped through the cracks of the system.
What we do far less is look to ourselves to provide solutions. And one of the most obvious solutions is volunteering.
Staff-to-resident ratios has been a much-discussed solution. When I worked at Change.org, one of our biggest petitions was Jane Seaholme’s ask to Aged Care Minister Ken Wyatt for mandated aged care staff/resident ratios (305,655 signatures and counting; the Minister still hasn’t acted). Jane’s own mum’s alleged neglect in an aged care facility spurred her to fight for this.
In her petition, Jane writes: “Overworked staff are stressed and undervalued. In many aged care homes, one staff member can care for 20 or more residents with residents waiting for long periods to receive the care they urgently need.”
When I asked the Aged Care Minister about this last year, Ken Wyatt said: “Clinical evidence and research must be carefully considered in determining the mix of aged care staff, and I will not predetermine the outcomes of the Royal Commission... Fourteen aged care homes across Australia have had their accreditation revoked in the past year, including for inadequate provision of staff.”
In many of the debates around aged care staff-to-resident ratios, the same issue arises: elderly people's pastoral, social and emotional needs are neglected in an understaffed, overstretched system.
Volunteering plays a crucial role to fill this gap. More needs to be done to promote these opportunities to everyday Australians. We need a huge, well-funded PR campaign to make Australians realise elderly people are all of our responsibility in an ethical and just society, and encourage more buddy-style volunteering.
You could hit on a diamond like Douglas. Later this month, I’m taking him to Polly’s, a dance evening with drag performances which he remembers attending many moons ago. He used to occasionally drag up as his alter-ego, Dusty.
It isn’t just frangipanis and Mae West quotes. In fact, that’s exactly all it is -- on repeat. The challenge with a fortnightly visit is that Douglas tends to forget he’s told me the same seven stories countless times, so now I know exactly where and when the punchline arrives.
Douglas knows this, too. “If I’ve told you before, throw me out the window,” he instructed me once, “but I will keep telling it on the way down!”
He’s self-aware and unapologetic about his loquaciousness. And my dementia training has helped me cope!
“I’ll dust off my best halter-neck top!” Douglas said upon learning we’re off to his favourite Polly’s, which has been going since 1964.
His humour, thankfully, is the last thing to go.
Some elderly people have huge practical and health-related needs. All Douglas really wanted was the company. The banter. And someone to laugh on cue at his repeated punchlines.