Treating our elderly people ethically and with transparency

The dramatic increase in COVID-19 deaths in Australia’s aged care homes begs the ethics around our treatment of people in aged care, says a UNSW expert.

 

In less than four months, deaths from COVID-19 in aged care have increased from 28 to 580, at the time of writing.

 

UNSW Emeritus Professor Richard Hugman, a social worker who specialises in the aged care professions, says Australia’s service provision needs to treat older people as human beings rather than objects.

 

“To use a similar ethos in caring for human beings that you would use in producing physical things for sale, I think is an unfortunate way to think about the world,” the former professor of social work at UNSW Arts & Social Sciences, says.

 

“The way policies are framed around running these [placeshttps://agedcare.royalcommission.gov.au/publications/research-paper-9-cost-residential-aged-care">a survey by the University of Queensland for RCACQS estimated it would cost $621 million per year to improve the quality of all aged care homes to better standards. In its October 2019 interim report, the RCACQS’ scathing review stated that aged care is a “shocking tale of neglect” in Australia that fails to meet the needs of our elderly people.

 

Australia’s aged care sector is “unkind and uncaring” towards older people, it does not deliver uniformly safe and quality care and often neglects them, according to the interim report.

 

Prof. Hugman said while the Royal Commission creates an opportunity for people to speak up, the real challenge lies in the government’s response and how it then permeates into the wider society.

 

A lack of transparency

Prof. Hugman said there is a lack of transparency in how government funding is spent by management in aged care facilities in comparison to community-based social services where monitoring is stringent.

 

He says claims by some aged care homes, particularly those from the for-profit sector, that they have to spend less on staff relative to residents in order to cover their costs just doesn’t stack up.

 

“And those claims about non-profitability do not explain how or why the [aged carehttps://www.health.gov.au/initiatives-and-programs/victorian-aged-care-response-centre">Victorian Aged Care Response Centre has since been set-up to coordinate efforts to stabilise any further COVID-19 outbreaks across the private and public aged care sectors, with an infection control officer now stationed in each facility.

 

And the Royal Commission is set to release its final report by 26 February 2021.

 

Prof. Hugman recommends the government respond to the Royal Commission by not only providing sufficient funding but by also ensuring older people are treated with dignity and care.

 

“[The government needs to] focus on improvements to the aged care sector that are not reflective of a sense that older people needing care are a burden on society,” Prof. Hugman said.

 

“[Instead, they need to focus on the fact] that older people are part of society and that a good society is one that values all its members.”

 

Prof. Hugman also said there needs to be an emphasis placed on the expression of positive values about how to treat and view elderly people as human beings.

 

“Frankly, there are some places I've visited in the last few years, either because I've had friends or relatives who are living in them or I've gone to visit for professional reasons,” Prof. Hugman said. And they’re places, “I wouldn't go anywhere near”.

 

25 September 2020.