It used to be, especially in home care, that a few people with a kind and caring nature could sustain a valuable service to the senior citizens of their local area. We owe a debt of gratitude to those community-spirited people who’ve been involved.

There are still many services overseen by volunteer management committees or boards made up of people who have served for many years. Some of these have accepted, even embraced, the change that is happening in aged care. Unfortunately, many have not. I regularly come across committee or board members, and, of course, staff, of aged care facilities and services who are scared that the changing environment will destroy what they’ve built up. So they’re holding on to the bitter end. Sadly, I believe it will be a bitter end. They’re unwittingly killing their service with kindness. Most don’t realise what they’re doing.

Survival of the fittest

Simply caring is no longer enough. The days of being able to run a service on the kind, caring nature of relatively low-paid staff and unpaid volunteers alone doesn’t cut it any more. The government is no longer just handing out money in return for a service being delivered to the community. Survival for any care service will now demand business acumen, professionalism, management expertise, leadership, risk-taking and an innovative spirit. A caring attitude will help.

I came across a sad case just the other day in a small regional town. It’s a respite service run by a committee of lovely people, all of whom care very deeply about what they have built up over the years, but none of whom appear to have any real idea of what’s about to hit them. They have little grasp of what currently drives their service’s income and expenditure patterns and its cashflow, let alone how that will radically change in the very near future. They simply take their government funding and spend it to deliver services in the way they have done for years. Everything smacks of seat-of-the-pants management. And already the cracks in the organisation’s finances are becoming a yawning chasm. The committee members have clung on too long out of the goodness of their hearts. If some professional business expertise isn’t brought in soon, it may be too late. The best solution may be a merger or takeover by some other organisation with the expertise to turn the business round.

I used the term “business” in the last sentence deliberately. To survive in this new era, aged care services must see themselves as businesses. I realise that ‘business’ is a dirty word to some in human services, but it’s a reality. With control and choice in the hands of the service recipient – a good thing in principle, I believe – the changed funding models and increasing competition will drive out any service that isn’t running as a well-managed business.

I can hear the cries of outrage from some long-serving volunteers and staff members. I’ve faced rooms full of angry, well-meaning volunteers and staff who maintain that adopting a business approach to aged care service provision will spell the death of genuine caring. I disagree. The two are not mutually exclusive. It’s not an ‘either-or’ situation; it’s a ‘both/and’ situation. A properly run business can be just as caring and just as community minded as any old-style care service. In fact, to survive long term in the new environment, it will have to be.

Greater competition will see some providers prosper, whilst others…

In the competitive industry of the near future, being chosen by our senior citizens to provide the high levels of service they want and deserve, will demand both a caring culture and a professional approach to management and service provision.

Of course, you will see some duplicitous commercially-based businesses trying to profiteer by faking a caring attitude – service recipients will need to be careful of that. But the long-standing human service sector can’t claim to be pure as the driven snow either. I’ve been shocked at what I’ve seen in terms of shonky practices by the employees of some service providers, whose committees or boards were too lacking in business understanding to realise that their staff have been rorting the funding system for years.

But the key point is that the new environment is creating enormous opportunities for organisations in the sector if they’re prepared to adopt a dual approach of genuine care underpinned by a professional business model. It’s in the best interests of our clients and the community that organisations already in the sector take advantage of the opportunities on offer. Allowing a long-standing service to be driven out of operation because a few people can’t let go of the past is inexcusable.

We need business minded managers with a caring attitude

What we need in the industry now are professionally based boards and committees who have the knowledge and experience to develop organisational strategies that tap into the evolving opportunities. We need managers who have strong business understanding as well as a caring attitude. And we need operational staff who are friendly, caring and professional, understanding that it needs more than just caring and kindness to deliver an effective service into the future.

Kindness is a wonderful virtue and I would hate to see it disappear from our aged care culture. But on its own, it’s not enough.

Take a close look at the organisation you’re involved with. Is kindness killing your service?

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