Calls for government to address ageist attitudes in aged care

Feb 23, 2020
Experts say ageism has contributed to mistreatment and neglect of Australia's older people. Source: Getty

Ageism is the contributing factor to mistreatment and neglect of the elderly in aged care and must be addressed immediately, experts say.

In a submission to the Royal Commission on Aged Care Quality and Safety, the EveryAGE Counts Coalition – which includes the Australian Human Rights Commission, COTA, National Seniors and The Benevolent Society – has called on the government to look into the way older people are viewed in society and how this is impacting their care in residential facilities.

The team of experts say underlying ageist attitudes, stereotypes and beliefs are entrenched in society and are flowing into the aged care sector, leading to unhappy and sometimes mistreated residents.

In its submission, the coalition urges the aged care sector not to place people on a “one-way conveyor belt”, but instead focus on ways to maximise health through rehabilitation from illness, injury and impairment for the specific person.

EveryAGE Counts also recommends placing emphasis on quality of life, rather than quality of care, and give residents the chance to experience the things they enjoy in later life.

“If we redesign the system based on existing ageist assumptions and stereotypes, and the devaluing of older people and this stage of life, we are largely tinkering at the edges but leaving the foundations in place,” the submission reads.

“In so doing, the ongoing impact of ageism will continue to sabotage improvements and change in aged care and undermine quality of life for older Australians.”

Dr Kirsty Nowlan, EveryAGE Counts co-chair, says that the older generation aren’t robots and carers must stop treating them as if they don’t have their own wants and needs. She says sometimes the desire to care for the elderly turns into an overprotective and sometimes controlling nature where residents don’t have a say over what they eat, how they’re spoken to or what activities they can take part in.

“These actions are generally motivated by a desire to protect residents – for example, from the risk of contaminated food, or the possibility of falling from bed or a chair – but they also result in a range of indignities and losses for them,” Nowlan says.

“While the worst examples involve criminal activity and should be treated as such, it is also important to be attentive to the ways in which attitudes, power and resource constraints can create the fertile ground in which abuse and neglect become possible.”

These incorrect assumptions and ageist views are prominent through the whole of Australia. In a survey conducted by The Benevolent Society, over-65s were asked about their experiences with various examples of ageism.

Respondents’ most common reported experience was being told a joke about older people (57 per cent), followed by being talked down to because of their age (38 per cent) and being ignored (37 per cent).

According to Nowlan, this is the reason why Australians are so against moving into aged care and why there needs to be a public conversation about ageism in general throughout the country.

She says we must stop talking about the problems of an ageing society, and instead turn our attention to the opportunities the older generation have and how to take advantage of extended life.

“We have a real opportunity with the royal commission to think about what a great system of supporting older people should look like,” she says. “It’s absolutely critical that there’s a focus on promoting a great quality of life and an understanding that older people have a sense of purpose, a sense of identity, a sense of reputation – we need an aged care system that reflects this.”

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