Staff shortages in aged care have hit crisis point, and the problem is expected to worsen.
The workforce crisis in the aged care sector is dire and affecting lives, with some providers evaluating their ongoing capability to cater to their clients’ needs.
Across regional and remote Western Australia, people are being taken out of their communities because local aged care services have closed admissions. Some services will close completely in the next few months.
This is happening not because the aged care providers lack the will, the care, or the funding (tight as it is), but because they cannot get the staff.
The staff they have are working double and triple shifts, with many on the edge of burnout. Clinical care risks are skyrocketing, and providers’ ability to care while allowing for choice and dignity is increasingly being compromised.
Worryingly, we haven’t seen the worst yet. A recent Committee for Economic Development of Australia report has estimated there will be a shortfall of more than 110,000 workers nationally by 2030.
That is a requirement of at least 17,000 extra workers (net) every year and does not consider the introduction of the new minimum staffing standards, assumes only a basic standard of care is required, and does not factor in adjacent sectors such as health, disability, community and child care, which recruit from the same pool of workers and are experiencing their own shortages.
This scenario has been brewing for many years but has now reached crisis point due to COVID-19.
This isn’t just about being able to get a hot cup of coffee, or a house built by Christmas. This is about the lives of our most vulnerable: our elderly.
Tragedy will follow if we can’t get in front of it.
Responding to this issue requires a genuine and urgent engagement by the state and federal governments with ministerial support across the relevant portfolios.
The WA Aged Care CEO Group – comprising Russell Bricknell (Baptistcare), Stephanie Buckland (Amana Living), Chris Hall (Juniper), Chris How (Bethanie), Jennifer Lawrence (Brightwater Care Group), and Graeme Prior (Hall & Prior) – recently held a forum with key WA government and education stakeholders. It is heartening to see they are significantly more engaged than their counterparts in other states.
Meaningful initiatives in workforce training and development are emerging, while the state government’s Sustainable Health Review is another positive step. We’re also seeing Curtin University, The University of Notre Dame Australia, TAFE, and Community Skills WA engaging with the issue.
What is true, though, is that the dots still need to be joined so that the sum is greater than the whole. We need a coordinated approach at state and federal levels to the issue of workforce containing the following key elements:
• Acknowledging the profound and measurable social and economic impact of the aged care sector in our communities. On any level, it makes sense to nurture this sector.
• Understanding that any workforce solution must interface with health, community, child care and disability. We cannot continue to take from one to give to the other.
• The solution must address thin markets, including remote and regional areas. Cooperation and collaboration, as opposed to competition, is key here.
• A uniform approach to employment, education and career path development is required across aged care, disability, and community, with similar industrial agreements and formal recognition of a transferable and interchangeable skills base.
• The currently punitive regulatory framework needs to recognise these workforce challenges and work with the sector to meet them. A sanction can cost upwards of $1.5 million to remove: a disproportionate punishment for aged care providers otherwise working hard to find staff and money better spent on care.
• The federal aged care funding mechanism needs to properly value the work of care workers and nurses.
Even Charles Darwin knew that cooperation, not struggle, drives evolution. WA is facing one of the most profound changes of our time: rapid population ageing.
It’s an issue as big as climate change and as urgent as COVID-19. The question of whether we can thrive in the face of this challenge will depend on the ability of all stakeholders to join the dots, cooperate, and evolve.
• Amber Crosthwaite is a commercial lawyer specialising in seniors living, aged care and disability