There’s been some agitated discussion on talkback recently about aged care services. I know, talkback is where some people get paid well to make other people angry – but it serves a purpose. Examples of abuse were mentioned, and residential care facilities took a hammering. The host did acknowledge that the discussion unfortunately clouds the good people doing good work helping the elderly and running good facilities. Nonetheless talkback did its job, and people’s blood pressure, mine included, was raised.

Listening to talkback often has that effect. It produces a rush of adrenaline. But before that adrenaline rush turns into a rush to judgement, it’s useful to put things in perspective

According to the Ministry of Health’s statistics, New Zealanders today are living longer. Many of our later years are lived with a disability. Our older population is becoming more ethnically diverse. And it is growing faster than our younger population. The point is, older people represent a very, very large – and growing — sector of the community. And it’s worth spending some time reflecting on the ways in which we care for and protect them

Today, there are an estimated 700,000 New Zealand residents aged 65 and older. (Aged Care Demand Model 2018 Update — https://tas.health.nz/health-of-older-people/tools-and-guidance/). There are 668 aged residential care facilities recognised by the 20 district health boards. They provide care for over 33,000 people, and the number is expected to grow by over 3% each year for the next decade. These are people who need services funded by the Ministry. There are also an equally large number of people living in retirement villages.

In 2016, the last year for which data is available, there were 383 retirement villages operating throughout New Zealand, with over 28,000 units and around 36,600 residents representing more than 5% of people over 65 and more than 12% of people over 75. Over three quarters of the residents are in the larger centres around Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Hamilton and Tauranga.* The vast majority of these facilities are well operated, staffed by compassionate people who are experts in caring for the elderly. They offer residents a safe, secure environment, companionship and understanding and ready access to trained medical staff.

Previously I’ve noted that isolation and neglect are amongst the most demoralising aspects of getting older. I believe that families have a duty of care towards their elderly members, but sometimes it’s just not practical for them to look after their older family members at home. And while older people often want to remain living in their own family home, that’s not always safe or realistic. In these cases, I think families owe it to their older members to ensure that they are looked after by the experts in aged care. Through my experience of running Radius Care over the last twelve years, I can say confidently that putting a loved one into a care facility is going to bring them much greater happiness and wellbeing in their later years than leaving them in isolation in their own home.

That brings me to the crux of the matter. How to ensure that the elderly receive the treatment they deserve, wherever they happen to live.

The recent election campaign had an interesting proposal from the Labour party: to establish an Aged Care Commissioner.

Labour suggested that the aim was “to improve outcome-oriented performance measures and handle complaints”.

While handling complaints is important, establishing a Parliamentary Commissioner for the Elderly (rather like the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment) might be a better model.

As an independent Officer of Parliament, a Commissioner might have broad powers to investigate matters relating to the care of the elderly. He or she would be wholly independent of the government of the day and, rather than reporting to a Government Minister, would report to Parliament as a whole through the Speaker of the House and the Officers of Parliament Committee.

Much of the Aged Care Commissioners’ work would be directed in two areas. The first is supervisiory: overseesing a mechanism for ensuring that aged care facilities are well managed and properly staffed and reviewing complaints. The second is providing advice on aged care issues, with a mission of maintaining and improving the quality of the New Zealand aged care. In that regard a Parliamentary Commissioner For The Elderly would look at issues affecting those who are becoming older, mechanisms to better protect them, improve their quality of life and ensure they receive equitable treatment and access to resources.

Labour’s proposal was not much discussed at the time of the election and it hasn’t been spoken of since, to my knowledge. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good idea. It just means it’s no longer a priority.

Perhaps it should be.

* Source: JLL Database: http://www.jll.nz/new-zealand/en-gb/Research/jll-nz-retirement-village-whitepaper-2017.pdf February 2017

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