The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety’s Interim Report was released three weeks ago, and this week’s Future of Ageing Conference provided ample opportunity for the sector’s most prominent figures to discuss their concerns. 

The Interim Report, entitled Neglect, was scathing in its assessment of the aged care sector, but it was the candid nature in which the report was written that made it feel as though this report represented more than the opinions of the Commissioners.

This felt like the collective voice of thousands of bewildered and angry Australians who had finally had their chance to let those that run the sectors know exactly how they were feeling.

And it appears that industry figures felt the same way. 

“I think that the report is a reflection of what the community thinks,” said Pat Sparrow, Chief Executive of Aged & Community Services Australia. 

“We have had 18 reviews in the last 20 years with little change, in my opinion, the Royal Commission is trying to deliver a message that is so painful that the community and government all say “yes, we have to change.” 

“What we have to do now is change and win back the trust of the community.”

According to the ABC’s Australia Talks survey, 72% of respondents indicated they never wanted to live in an aged care home, which is somewhat understandable when you consider the current state of the aged care system and the horror stories portrayed across the media.

Realistically, most Australians will need aged care support services at some point in their lifetime, and making the prospect of needing aged care services less daunting will require a significant change in approach from all parties involved. 

While there may have never been a time when the mainstream media offered a completely unbiased and balanced account of every major issue, today’s news outlets compete for an audience’s attention by trading shocking new headlines.

Unfortunately, horror stories grab headlines, and internet audiences are far more likely to spend time venting frustrations in the comment section of an article that angers them than they do engaging with positive news stories.

And this means bad stories equals more advertising dollars. 

The mainstream media’s role in shaping public opinion is so powerful that in some ways bad press is the only thing that governments and big companies fear.

This can be evidenced by the Royal Commission being announced the day before an ABC’s brutal exposé into aged care.

CEO of Presbyterian Aged Care, Paul Sadler, told HelloCare that while he did credit the ABC for sparking the Royal Commission, it’s their positive aged care content that is needed more than ever.  

“What we have to now move towards is coming up with solutions like the ABC did with its Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds program about intergenerational care and look to keep building positive narratives,” said Paul.

While it’s true that the bad news coverage is needed in terms of accountability, it’s obvious that there is a massive imbalance in the types of stories that are coming out.

Compounding this problem is the fact that mainstream media and entertainment is completely ageist.

We see far fewer people over the age of 65 in the mainstream spotlight than we ever have, and this lack of representation pushes older people and their issues further away from the public conscious.

One of the key elements of building trust is derived from understanding, which does not bode well for anyone looking to put their faith in the Australian aged care system.

Not only is the general public lacking the vital information required to make informed aged care service decisions, but the information on quality indicators and consumer experience records are also extremely hard to find and not necessarily the best indicators for aged care experience.

While there is a lot of accessible information regarding aged care funding, the acronym riddled language used to explain this process is far too complex for most to comprehend. 

Another element that affects the public’s perception is authenticity, and there are very few people in this sector that are willing to speak candidly.

Over the last 14 months, we have read countless generic media statements from aged care providers, while government and peak body representatives often come off as cold when interviewed because they are so well versed in generic media-speak.

“We do have to embrace open disclosure,” said Paul Sadler.

“We have to have discussions with people that are not framed around being scared of being sued. We need to be as frank as can be about what went wrong, what we did to investigate, and say this is what we are proposing to do to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”

“I think if you have those discussions, and have the aged care quality standards that are encouraging that in the sector, then I think we will begin addressing some of the issues – but you will never be able to please all of the people all of the time.”

Last but not least, we have accountability. 

Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck told the audience that one of the Commissioner’s told him that the final report from the Royal Commission may show that up to 30 percent of aged care providers are not up to scratch.

Although we desperately need more aged care homes to be able to house our growing elderly population, the fact that providers like Bupa fail continually fail to meet the minimum standards of care but face no real repercussions as a business sets a horrible example.

Furthermore, we are yet to see anyone truly admit to any of the failings that resulted in aged care quality falling far below what senior Australians expect and deserve.

During the panel discussion, we heard from Professor Michael Woods who was skeptical of the interim report’s findings, labeling parts of the report “hyperbole.” 

And an anonymous provider raised a comment that are people who were afraid to ask confronting questions to the Minister and peak body representatives out of fear.

So, how are we going to convince the community to put their trust in aged care when those in the sector don’t trust each other?

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