Barbara Spriggs opened the first day of hearings at the Aged Care Royal Commission by describing how hard she and her family had to push to get answers to questions about the care of her husband, Bob Spriggs, when he was a resident at the Oakden Aged Care facility.

Despite the hurdles, her extraordinary persistence eventually led to two formal investigations, which exposed systemic systemic failings and the eventual closing of Oakden.

Mrs Spriggs sat on the witness stand with her son Clive, their plain language and ordinary appearance in contrast to the extraordinary courage and resilience they have shown over several years in their quest to find answers.

Mrs Spriggs said their persistence has taken a huge personal toll on herself and her family, but she was motivated to speak out about her husband’s care and Oakden in the hope that she might prevent another family having to endure horrific experiences like those they went through.

“I know Bob would not want others to go through what he went through,” she said.

Mr Spriggs died in 2016, at the age of 66.

The importance of speaking out

Mrs Spriggs encouraged others to speak out about about their stories.

“I want to encourage others to tell their stories about aged care in Australia,” she said.

Ms Spriggs acknowledged that speaking out was difficult, and she had had to overcome many hurdles to do so.

“I know speaking out is not an easy thing to do,” she said. “I had to push hard and long to be heard.”

Oakden: “not given the respect they were entitled to”

“Bob and others were not given the respect to which they were entitled,” Mrs Spriggs said.

She said aged care residents need to be treated with the care, dignity and the respect they deserve.

She described the condition of his room at Oakden; it was locked, and he lay with only a sheet underneath him. There was no seat on the toilet, and he was alone.

“It was like a prison,” she said.

“He was given medication to sedate him. I felt strongly this was done to residents to ease their management rather that for the residents welfare,” she said.

Mrs Spriggs said she never found out what caused severe bruising on her husband’s body, and she proposed that if an aged care resident shows any signs of physical abuse, the matter should be treated as a domestic abuse issue.

Industry observations and suggested changes

Mrs Spriggs said staffing in aged care needs particular attention.

“Caring for the elderly is not a job that everyone can do,” she said. It requires people to be passionate about caring for the elderly, and to care for the aged as though they are caring for their own family.

She proposed that aged care employers use screening to hire only appropriate staff, and for aged care staff to be registered and highly trained. They also need to be appropriately paid, and the complexity of the work they do needs to be acknowledged, she said.

“If an aged care worker does something wrong this should be documented in a national database for future employers to see,” she said.

CCTV cameras should be mandatory in aged care

Mrs Spriggs said she believes that aged care facilities should have CCTV cameras, not only for the safety of residents but also to protect staff.

She questioned how accreditors didn’t pick up that something was wrong at Oakden. She said it was clear to her simply walking into the facility there were problems within it.

“It concerns me that nobody else picked up on this. It’s [accreditation isn’t] just about ticking things off.”

Mrs Spriggs also mentioned that her family’s carefully documented end-of-life care plan for Bob was ignored, and she said this aspect of aged care needs to be looked at.

Mrs Spriggs was helped with her concerns by the Community Visitors Scheme, which she recommended, and she proposed it be made more open and accessible aged care customers.

Mrs Spriggs’ son Clive spoke next. As he read his prepared speech, Mrs Spriggs held her hand reassuringly on his back.

“I think the aged care system needs to change,” Clive said.

Clive said the changes he would like to see are the introduction of CCTV, that aged care operators be held accountable for the care their operations are delivering, for improved staff training, and for higher staffing levels.

Overview of aged care

The day began with Senior Counsel Assisting Mr Peter Gray QC describing how the aged care system operates in Australia, and how it is monitored and regulated.

He talked of the changing demographics of the Australian population, and what that means for the aged care system. He said the growing number of people with dementia in Australia will be followed up later in the Royal Commission.

Professor Ian Yates AM spoke after a break. He discussed many of the major themes currently affected aged care in Australia, including medication, food, penalties for those not doing the right thing, and greater recognition for those doing a good job, among other things.

He said Australia, on the whole, is an “ageist” society, an attitude that has prevented us from making aged care a priority.

John McCallum, CEO and Research Director, National Seniors Australia, will speak later this afternoon.

Transcripts of the Royal Commission presentations can be found here.

Live video stream of the Royal Commission can be viewed here.

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