You don’t have to read very far into the Aged Care Royal Commission’s interim report to get a clear sense of why our nation has sadly failed in the care of older Australians.
In the first and second paragraphs of the report’s foreword an issue that has fed our tolerance for mistreatment and abuse in aged care is spelled out clearly.
“ … the language of public discourse is not respectful towards older people. Rather, it is about burden, encumbrance, obligation and whether taxpayers can afford to pay for the dependence of older people. As a nation, Australia has drifted into an ageist mindset that undervalues older people and limits their possibilities.”
I have been reminded of these words as public commentary has begun to focus on how Australia charts a path forward through the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis.
The terrible economic situation that our nation now faces, with entire industries forced to shut down to enforce social distancing practices, has prompted some to argue that the best way forward is to begin immediately relaxing some of these measures and allow the virus to spread.
A tacit part of these arguments has been that those who are most vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19, particularly older Australians, should simply accept the consequences.
Whether they have meant it or not, the suggestion has been that the lives of older Australians are less valuable than healthier and younger members of our community.
This argument isn’t just unhelpful, it is wrong.
And it is particularly disappointing when the consequences of failing to protect older people from COVID-19 are there for us all to see.
These consequences are spelled out in the grim statistics and horrible stories emerging by the day in Europe and the US:
- Care homes across the UK are now facing outbreaks of COVID-19 with hundreds already dead (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/apr/15/coronavirus-death-toll-in-englands-care-homes-reaches-1400);
- Older people in nursing homes have been abandoned and left to die in Spain (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/23/spain-distributes-650000-testing-kits-as-coronavirus-deaths-rise-steeply);
- And bodies of the dead being dumped in sheds outside places of care in the US (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/15/nyregion/coronavirus-nj-andover-nursing-home-deaths.html).
Even in Australia, our relative success at limiting the spread of COVID-19 has not insulated us from outbreaks of the disease in aged care.
These outbreaks across the country have shown us that anything but the strictest practices and vigilance against infections will lead to disease and sadly death. Most of the passengers infected from the ill-fated Ruby Princess were Australians over the age of 65.
This should give us all pause before arguing older Australians and vulnerable members of our community should just put up with a plan that lifts restrictions too soon or too widely and allows this virus to spread.
Sadly, accepting this kind of attitude has consequences far beyond the terrible stories and statistics of disease and death.
It is an attitude that fuels the corrosive ageism that the Aged Care Royal Commissioners alluded to in its interim report just six months ago.
As the interim report says, it is also an attitude that has allowed our aged care system to fall into crisis.
If this is our attitude now to older Australians, how can we ever expect to fix the issues that led to the Royal Commission into aged care in the first place?
Older Australians and those who are vulnerable to COVID-19 are not worth less or expendable.
Australia’s success at limiting the transmission of COVID-19 so far gives us the opportunity and time to make considered decisions about the next steps forward.
We all want a way out but we must do so with our eyes open and we must also be compassionate.
Anything less diminishes us as a nation and as fellow human beings.
As well intentioned as some are in wanting to kick start the economy, we cannot afford to lose our humanity on the road out of this crisis.
Older Australians deserve our very best selves – now and when we turn to the task of fixing our country’s broken aged care system.