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An open letter from the CEO of St Vincent's Health Australia

Toby Hall - Inside Ageing
August 2020

We have spent the last five months acknowledging and celebrating the sacrifice and dedication of frontline healthcare workers in the face of the pandemic, and rightfully so.

But I will never understand how, despite showing exactly the same traits and often working under equally trying circumstances, we continue to largely ignore the contribution of the thousands of Australians who work in aged care.

Poorly paid, and with many who need upskilling, aged care workers have been operating under enormous pressure. And yet the broader community at best takes them for granted and at worst are openly hostile to their efforts.

I’m in the fairly unique position as the CEO of an organisation that runs both hospitals and aged care. I see, on a daily basis, how our society treats these groups of workers differently.

On the one hand, I see pop stars writing tribute songs for hospital workers; and everything from ready-made meals, luxury hotel rooms, and surgical scrubs being donated by generous businesses. These are wonderful gestures. Our health workers deserve it. They are the best of us.

But, almost on a daily basis, I receive reports of the most outrageous abuse being heaped on aged care workers just for doing their job: racist insults, threats of physical harm, refusal to follow COVID-safe procedures. It’s disgusting.

We all know how the pandemic has brought massive changes in aged care.

While visits were correctly restricted by governments, the decision has caused enormous frustration among families and loved ones, which, in many cases, have then been taken out on staff. Volunteers – often the lifeblood of a nursing home – have sadly had to be turned away to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

The threat of the virus finding its way into an aged care facility hangs over everyone on a daily basis. Employees are constantly worried about unknowingly infecting those in their care. And just like healthcare professionals, aged care employees return to their families at the end of the day, worried if they’ll take the virus home with them.

As we watch Victoria’s coronavirus aged care disaster unfold, those concerns are legitimate and very real.

And yet, despite society’s general indifference, aged care workers continue to turn up to work each day, determined to do their best to keep our loved ones safe.

Recently the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety released a report on community attitudes to the aged care sector. The results, while unsurprising, were depressing.

Overall, the community’s perception of life in residential aged care is very bad.

But is it any wonder given the relentless stream of negativity around the sector over the last few years?

The Royal Commission has been essential. We all needed to be exposed to its brutal truths. Its findings will hopefully provide us with a platform to re-invent how we provide aged care in this country.

But one of its unintended side effects – certainly from the associated media coverage – has been the creation of an impression in the public’s mind that all aged care facilities are neglected places staffed by uncaring people.

It is deeply unfair and untrue.

Again, we all know how our sector’s workforce morale is through the floor.

According to United Voice, four-in-ten aged care workers plan to leave the sector within five years.

We’ve all got stories in our services of workers who are embarrassed to say what they do for a living or are embarrassed to be seen in their uniform.

They’ve been stigmatised by the horrendous actions of a minority and are hurting.

We should be able to expose the failings of the sector while acknowledging that the majority who work in aged care are good people doing a very hard job. And we can’t hope to improve aged care without empowering and enabling frontline staff and by making a career in the sector significantly more attractive.

Providing aged care is hard any time, let alone during a pandemic.

Our society asks aged care workers to care for our loved ones because we can’t do it ourselves. And yet, when they step up, they become targets for pot shots and even vilification for their efforts.

It’s time to stop unnecessarily criticising aged care workers and start thanking them for what they do, especially during this crisis.

They should be held on a pedestal alongside our healthcare heroes.

We bring God’s love to those in need through the healing ministry of Jesus.

Under the stewardship of Mary Aikenhead Ministries

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