1. What inspired you to establish Eldernet?
Eleanor Bodger (left) with daughter Esther

Eleanor Bodger (EB): I was working in the sector as a social worker and felt frustrated at the way in which information was restricted both in terms of how physically difficult it was to obtain (and then pass on to people in a timely manner) but also the ‘gatekeeping’ around the knowledge that came from that information. When a colleague told me about the internet (I was computer phobic) I suddenly saw the potential.

2. Can you give us a snapshot summary of then and now?

EB: For the first year or so the same colleague and I started work on Eldernet part time. I had to get a computer and teach myself to use it. It was heady times really as it was quite anarchic and innovative. Many of those I interacted with were just feeling their way too.

My brother joined us after six months or so, and he became the traveling voice of Eldernet. Some who have been in the sector for a long time will remember Craig. We didn’t pay ourselves at that stage and poor Craig travelled around New Zealand on the smell of an oily rag and the generosity of friends and family. We lived off the belief that this ‘thing’ was going to take off. Quite early on in the piece I bought my colleague out and continued working with my brother. My office was a quite small, back bedroom with one computer and one residential ‘dial up’ landline phone.

After my brother decided he had to ‘get a real job’, I approached my daughter Esther, with her complimentary skill sets, to join me, and from there, things just escalated. We crammed more into the back bedroom and began to bring on staff as resourcing allowed. At our 20th birthday we were able to celebrate working out of a lovely new building. We have banks of computers, ultrafast broadband etc. etc. and a great team of eleven, several subcontractors and the assistance of others who believe in what we do. Our expert Advisory Board provides invaluable support.

We are still based in Christchurch and our model of operation, which includes frequent travel around the country, works really well for us, and we hope, our members and contacts around the country.

3. Was it hard getting Eldernet off the ground initially?

EB: It was unbelievably hard. The ‘thing’ didn’t take off like we expected. We were also ‘selling’ the idea that ‘soon people would be making their decisions by looking at a computer screen’ to people who didn’t have computers and often didn’t even know what they were. We understand now that this was a particularly hard demographic to make inroads into as many residential care providers were ‘owner operators’ and their primary interest, and often skill, was providing care not necessarily profiling and promoting their service. I must give credit to those early adopters of our service. They had tremendous faith in us. They would fill out a piece of paper with the details of their service on it. We would sit up in the evening, on dial up, enter their data and then in the morning post a copy of the page back to them for their approval. The tediousness of it now seems unbelievable.

4. At what point did you know you were onto a winning idea?

EB: I was convinced about the power of the internet the moment I heard about it. We had several trips to Wellington to try to convince the Ministry of Health that this was a good idea – basically offering it to them (in one meeting we were told the internet was going to come to nothing). When we finally got the message that they weren’t going to do it, we decided we would. Internet use was growing. We believed we were reading it right and we were utterly committed.

5. How has the rise of digital technology impacted Eldernet’s growth?

EB: From my perspective it’s taken a while to get to point of wholesale adoption of the internet but once that happened then all the other digital offerings began filling up the space. As soon as our members began getting their own computers things looked up. One of the most useful developments for me has been the ‘smart phone’. It beats hauling a big heavy computer around the country, sitting in a motel at night on dial up, entering data. Now, everyone can access their own data on Eldernet and make changes using a phone!

6. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the aged care sector?

EB: The first significant change was ‘Certification’. It bought standardisation (giving prospective residents minimum expectations) which I think it was greatly needed. Ryman also began operating (John Ryder was particularly encouraging to us in those early stages) and developing their retirement villages; this was a massive change to the “social housing” model that “villages” once were. The exit of many religious and welfare organisations from the sector, to my mind gave credibility to the notion that the funding was too tight. Coming in on the back of these changes has been the rise of the ‘corporates’ and the buying up and amalgamation of individual facilities and complexes. It obviously allows for greater control and brings economies of scale.

Over time we’ve also seen some positive changes in the nature of many relationship between providers and DHB. Initiatives such as those initiated by Dr Michal Boyd in Waitemata with Clinical Nurse Specialists going in and supporting residential care facilities to ‘be the best they can be’, have been bridge building.

interRAI of course is a more recent issue. During our travels we hear multiple perspective on this. I suspect that if the full suite had been able to be implemented, the technology and interagency processes and access sorted out, then the acceptance and value would have been greater.

7. If you could change one thing about the aged care sector as it currently stands, what would it be?

EB: I would like to see residential care services much more integrated into their communities. We talk about schools being part of their communities, in fact often a hub of the community; yet the kids go home to their own beds at the end of the day. For those living in residential care, it is their home. So why are they (on the whole) so isolated from their communities? Get this right and we’ll be getting a whole lot more right as well, including improving the relationship with a host of other agencies.

8. Do you think the New Zealand public is generally well informed about our aged care system?

EB: Not really. Their perception is skewed by past perceptions/experiences, what they see in advertising, and sometimes misreporting in the media.

9. What is the most common public misconception about residential aged care?

EB: The most common perception is a sort of an irony really. If I don’t need residential care, then all facilities are the same (and to be avoided if possible) but if I do, then somewhere out there is the ‘best’ rest home and someone needs to tell me which one it is!

10. Do you think New Zealand’s rest home sector would benefit from a star rating system?

EB: It’s something we’ve watched with interest and while we’ve had a review function on the site for some time we’re of the opinion that there’s not much appetite for such things given the trolls and false reporting in the online space. With regard to a more simplified star-rating system, if based on customer feedback still has the potential to be misused and is also very subjective. If it’s populated by an auditing type body such as a ‘Qualmark’ then there’s added cost. In my mind nothing equals doing your homework and going to ‘look and see’ yourself. What suits one person doesn’t necessarily suit another. Few of us would buy a house straight off a listing and the street I prefer might well be different to the one you do. Recommendations only go so far. This is my home and I, or my deputy, need to give it serious consideration.

11. What stand out as the biggest highlights over the last 20 years?

EB: Personally speaking, the highlights for me are realising the power of having a vision and then surrounding myself with people who can also own it and help achieve it. I’ve also loved travelling around the country and finding out how people do ‘stuff ‘at their place and sharing ideas where I can. On an issues-based level the rising awareness of ageism has the potential to revolutionise the way in which we interact with people and how we address aging. On a sector level, I love to see the way people tackle concerning issues, debate and formulate responses etc… I’ve generally enjoyed attending conferences for this reason.

12. And the biggest challenges?

EB: Government policy and DHB strategies makes it clear that more people will be cared for in their own homes. I think one of the biggest challenges is how residential aged care can work more effectively with the home-based support sector.

13. Do you draw any inspiration from what similar sites overseas are doing?

EB: While we are constantly looking for great ideas we are always mindful of our primary users – older people and those who are closest to them. We therefore must apply that lens to all we do. We can’t always adopt the latest and greatest idea for that reason, so it is useful to look at other similar sites and see how they have handled things.

14. Do you think the needs and wants of older people have changed over time?

EB: Not really. I think we have the same needs and wants over the lifespan. We just haven’t been very good at recognising this in our recent past in ‘western’ New Zealand and have tended to treat older people as somehow different. If we’re looking at the question in terms of whether expectations have changed then yes; there is a significant difference in the expectations of the ‘younger old’ and the ‘old, old’. Hopefully we’re less likely to let the low expectations of many of our ‘old, old’ play out in the same way.

15. Are there any directions you’ve thought about taking Eldernet and then ruled out?

EB: We are never short of ideas. Some we’ve reluctantly had to let go, mainly for resourcing reasons. At one stage, early on, we thought about expanding the Eldernet model to cover other sectors (like a big portal) but we realised that the value we bring to this space is in the very specialised, quite personalized and comprehensive. We observed the path some of these other models took and how they developed over time and decided they weren’t going to suit us.

16. You and your daughter Esther are so well known in the industry. Does it help that you know just about everyone in the sector?!

EB: Absolutely! We have been so fortunate that people have given us their time so that we can get to know them and their sphere of work. It’s one of the great pleasures of the job.

17. If you could do anything differently in the past 20 years, what would it be?

EB: I’d perhaps look at raising capital to make things happen faster once momentum with the internet gathered pace.

18. What are your short-term goals for Eldernet (i.e 1-3 years)?

EB: We are continuing to focus on services that add value to our primary users and to our members so we’re expanding our IT team to make it happen faster. Esther and I want to spend more time ‘on the business’. I’m particularly interested in what’s happening at the community level and how the interaction between all interested parties can be improved. We are also adding services to the site where the provider has experience of working in this space and a commitment to making things easier for older people e.g. lawyers, dentists etc.

19. Where would you like to see Eldernet in the next 20 years?

EB: You’re asking this of someone who went from computer phobia to smartphone in the space of 20 years – and change is accelerating? Who knows? It’s exciting though and we plan to be there in some way, shape or form.

20. When you’re not working, where can you be found?

EB: In a book, travelling, in the great outdoors, camping, in a café with friends, with the extended family, and buried in my latest interest: genealogy.

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