The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety has announced virtual hearings will resume next month, as they continue to address how services can be improved for older people in aged care. One of the major items on the agenda is the discussion around aged care workers and the performance of providers – a challenge that all stakeholders of the aged care sector have voiced their respective concerns over in recent times, some even for many years.
The concerns pertain to supply, quality, capability, conditions, scope, attraction and retention and are associated with both the current and future workforce. Perhaps the most telling voice in relation to the aged care workforce comes from the community at large who are asking questions about the quality and quantity of the staff that will be looking after their family members – among other queries that remain difficult to answer.
One of the main questions is, what can be done to ensure we have a workforce that’s providing the best possible care and support to older Australians in the future? An integral part of the answer is linked to the voice of the wider community. Whilst there’s hugely important work being undertaken in accordance with Australia’s workforce strategy, a cultural shift must ultimately occur for our society to have the aged care workforce it seeks and that older people deserve.
Our community needs to elevate the standing upon which aged care work is placed. Our community must place greater value on the roles of caring, supporting and enabling older people – especially those who are frail, sick and vulnerable. Further to this, our community must raise its respect, prioritisation and commitment to older Australians. If we can achieve these cultural shifts as a community, we will expect, nay demand, a workforce that’s optimally trained, resourced, paid and led, to provide the best care, support and enablement to people using aged care services.
Aligned with this cultural shift, numerous enhancements are to be made to the aged care system and employment pathways to develop existing and future workers. The quality of training content, delivery and access is under review now and it’s a priority to get right. Such content must be congruent with the expectations of people using services and providers. And all efforts and processes to develop aged care workers must be geared towards the empowerment of those people using services in the interests of their health and wellbeing.
The current workforce and staffing challenges impact on the myriad of aged care actors but none more so than people using these services. The heavily documented inconsistency in standards across the industry, even between different shifts within a particular facility or service, is caused by several factors – but a shortage of quality staff is fundamental to the problem. Such inconsistency has led to an erosion of trust among the community and consequently, the avoidance by some people of required support and services.
Workforce shortages lead to reduced choice for older people. Even if providers are willing, a staffing incapacity will mean an inability to completely meet a resident or client’s expectations. The resultant outcomes see people being unable to source the type of assistance they prefer at the time and place they want it.
Ultimately, workforce challenges have a detrimental impact on older Australians’ health and wellbeing. If a residential care service cannot source quality workers, then necessary standards won’t be met. If a home care provider does not have the right personnel, then suboptimal support will be delivered. These are the stark realities that cannot be avoided if the right people with the right training performing the right duties are not the ones ‘doing the work’. These realities naturally lead to people missing out on the best of care; therefore, their quality of life will be impacted.
The pursuit of solutions needs to be from the ground up and the top down. Individual employers must continue to innovate in their attraction and development of the right people, while industry, government and relevant agencies design and implement the right systems to nurture a workforce pipeline for the future. Mentorship, recruiting for aptitude, ongoing skill development and renewal are all necessary ingredients. A cultural shift across society underpinning what needs to be done must come with an understanding of and a commitment to the older person. Whoever is doing whatever role in aged care must have that understanding and commitment to the people who matter most otherwise nothing else will matter at all.
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