Australia is sleepwalking into an aged care nightmare.
The media is full of stories about workforce shortages across several sectors, and while clearly this is causing pain for many Australians, there is nevertheless a tendency at all levels towards short-termism.
These labour shortages, by and large, are the result of a closed border policy at state and federal levels, which, at most, will last a further six to 12 months.
In the meantime, because of decades of neglect (despite numerous reports), the aged care sector is in crisis because its workforce cannot even meet current demand, let alone the future needs.
Further, Western Australia has no targeted aged care workforce plan for a sector that relies directly on human power to care for our most vulnerable.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. As a society, we are still uncomfortable with mortality and disturbed by notions that we, too, might age one day.
The power of the grey vote is yet to play out and, for those uninterested in the moral imperative associated with looking after our elderly, there is still widescale ignorance of the fact that the WA aged care sector is a heavy hitter when it comes to social and economic contribution.
For every $1 of federal funding received, the sector delivers $2.11 in social and economic impact.
This short-termism is a sizeable issue for baby boomers, who need a workforce now. However, if nothing is done, the real pain will be felt by gen Xers, the first of whom will hit retirement age in nine years.
Most of us will live to a ripe old age. If we want to age with dignity and in a manner of our choosing (whether that be at home or in residential care), then we’ll need significant numbers of nurses and care workers: a well-trained, engaged, and caring workforce.
Without them, no matter how well off we are as individuals, we are each destined to a sub-standard quality of life as we age.
In fact, 34 per cent of older households in 2018 said their care needs were not fully met. In 2020, there were an estimated 22,000 vacancies for care workers and nurses across the sector nationally.
And the aged cohort projected to grow by 40 per cent by 2026, and then more.
Partly, the problem is due to demographics; the ratio of working people (and therefore available workforce) is shrinking rapidly compared to the number of people requiring care. However, it should come as no surprise that we can’t find people prepared to work in the sector given the backbreaking work, low status, lack of career progression and low pay afforded to aged care workers. Why would you?
Like our elderly, we still don’t value them as we should. Sadly, the situation is dire and getting worse.
The Committee for Economic Development of Australia has estimated a shortfall of more than 110,000 workers by 2030 (and a 400,000 shortage by 2050) if things don’t change and that’s assuming only a basic standard of care is required.
That is at least 17,000 extra workers (net) required every year just to maintain status quo in a sector already ‘broken’ according to the Aged Care Royal Commission.
This isn’t going to be the golden age gen Xers are expecting.
While there is no silver bullet, the solution does not just sit with the federal government and the aged care sector. We must also see leadership from the state government in the development of a collaborative, strategic and targeted workforce plan co-designed with the sector, which looks at training, education, upskilling, leadership development, regional and remote services, carers, and volunteers.
If we don’t get this right, gen X will pay the price, when, for neither love nor money, can they get the support they want or need as they age.
• Amber Crosthwaite is a commercial lawyer specialising in seniors living, aged care and disability