Jack Campbell (right) and Brian Birch feel lucky to reside at an aged care home that caters for Aboriginal Australians but say not everyone is so fortunate. (ABC News: James Oaten)
“I wouldn’t even send my dog to it. My dog would reject it.”
That was the stinging assessment of residential aged care Aboriginal man Uncle Brian Campbell gave this week to the Royal Commission into Aged Care Safety and Quality.
Mr Campbell, a member of the Stolen Generations, is in a Melbourne facility tailored for Aboriginal Australians, run by the not-for-profit Aboriginal Community Elders Services Inc.
The 65-year-old has nothing but praise for his treatment.
But his parents, on the other hand, are in a generic aged care centre.
“My dad is in a wheelchair and [once] he wanted to go to the toilet and they said, ‘We will get to him when we can’,” Uncle Campbell told the royal commission.
“He had to soil himself.”
The facility, he said, had “institutionalised” his once-proud mother and father.
“They are all there sitting there waiting to die,” he said.
“In five years I’ve seen my parents deteriorate that quick, it’s not funny.”
Residents need personalised, tailored care
This week, the royal commission focused on the experiences of Australians from diverse backgrounds including members of the LGBTQI community, migrants, people experiencing disability, Indigenous Australians, and those with past trauma.
Aged care centres may pride themselves on treating all residents equally.
But it became apparent at the royal commission that that was not good enough.
Instead, people need individual, personalised, tailored care.
That became clear when the commission heard about a residential aged care centre that gave a group of elderly Jewish women kitting and crotchet materials.
The facility had simply “decided” the best way to keep them entertained was to give them craft work.
But it was an entirely different experience for the women.
They had all migrated to Australia after the Second World War and were forced to work in factories as their new homeland did not recognise their qualifications.
So, they “literally knitted and crotched for hours on end feeling it was their obligation … to produce as they did in the factory [and] to have the right for the meal at the end of the day,” the royal commission heard.
Then there was the case of veteran Brian Lynch.
After serving two postings in the Vietnam War, Mr Lynch was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety.
“I’m definitely not with it”: Vietnam veteran Brain Lynch says he was heavily medicated at a previous aged care home. (Supplied: Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety)
When he eventually wound up in residential care, he was given so many drugs that he described the experience as “one big sleep”.
“It’s hard to describe a place that you have no memory of,” he told the royal commissioners.
“It’s an insidious thing to go through. To know that you were functioning at the time but have no recollection.”
‘No systemic follow-up’, bureaucrat admits
There were many other examples where the system had turned individuals into just another number.
But quantifying the extent of the problem is impossible.
Federal bureaucrats this week admitted to numerous gaping holes in oversight, a lack of reliable data and policies being introduced with no prior analysis.
For instance, the Health Department admitted it did not check if aged care providers that promised to prioritise “special needs” clients had actually kept those commitments.
“No systemic follow-up has ever occurred,” senior health bureaucrat Jaye Smith admitted.
Meanwhile, the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) also admitted it did not know the type of support given to the 35,000 registered veterans in residential care.
“We have been very passive,” DVA Secretary Elizabeth Cosson said.
“We wait for a complaint or we wait for someone to raise a concern with us.”
Counsel Assisting Peter Grey QC pondered why such issues, which had been very well known for years, had not been addressed.
“There are two possible reasons that it has not been fixed,” he pondered.
“A lack of will or a lack of resources.”
A lack of will.
But is the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety going to be enough to turn that around?
Uncle Campbell was doubtful.
“I’ve sat with the Royal Commission into [Aboriginal] Deaths in Custody. I’ve sat with the Bringing them Home hearing [National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families].
“Hardly anything gets done. Is this one going to be the same?”
To that, royal commissioner Tony Pagone replied: “I certainly hope this is one that does get something done. That’s our intention.”
Many others share that hope.