I detected a subtle mood shift at this year’s New Zealand Aged Care Association conference; a positivity over the coffee cups and around the conference tables that I’d felt was somewhat missing last year.

Last year’s conference left delegates a little confused as to whether they should be frantically focusing on the future or panicking about pay equity. This year, there was more of a sense of rolling up sleeves and getting on with things.

In that regard, this year’s theme “embracing the new normal” was right on the money.  As providers adjust to the realities of the pay equity settlement, new immigration settings and other policy changes, it’s time to shift thinking to the here and now of running an aged care facility.

Sessions ranged from the practical – like Judith Johnson’s session on managing your business in the post-pay equity environment, HealthCert’s session on dealing with complaints, and the workshop sessions today – to the bigger picture of how policy decisions are affecting the operation of our rest homes.

Of these, Stephen McKernan’s update on the funding model review, while somewhat inconclusive given the review is still underway, was useful for providers to understand the potential for change.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier (pictured) looked at the fairly heavy topic of the Ombudsman’s new role of investigating secure dementia units as designated by Parliament. Although he won the crowd over with his candour, the audience bristled at the suggestion of five or six people investigating 20-bed dementia units, at times unannounced. While Boshier was quick to back-track on that point, it was good to see providers pushing back a little, defending the excellent job they do.

It’s a very proud sector, after all. As I rose to my feet to applaud the recipients of the Excellence in Care Awards it occurred to me that these fine examples of care are what should be defining the sector and making headlines – and not the regrettable but rare errors that are taken to epitomize what happens in New Zealand rest homes.

Rose Wall, deputy Health & Disability Commissioner addressed these errors to a receptive audience – after all, no one wants the sector to perform well more than providers.

But we should be hearing more about the virtual reality initiative that lets residents see grandchildren and destinations they’ve never been to. We should know that a rest home has rolled out a training programme designed to cut through staff language barriers in order to help them understand the fragility of older skin in wound care by having staff peeling blanched tomatoes, and experimenting with barrier creams. We should be seeing the group of residents connecting with older people all over the world with the help of modern digital technologies.

These were just some of the many entries into the Excellence in Care awards, of which there were a high calibre and a record number this year. The presentation of the awards at the gala dinner was a highlight of the conference, just slightly ahead of the ‘best-dressed’ presentations. In true NZACA conference style, people had made every effort to dress to the theme of time travel, from cavemen to Khardashians and everyone in between.

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