This is a question that goes to the heart of many of the issues in the aged care sector at present.

A panel of union members at the Criterion Building A Quality Aged Care Workforce conference held in Sydney last week tackled the topic of how we can better support the aged care workforce – how to find staff, how to keep them, and how to ensure their wellbeing.

A day in the life of a home care worker

Helen Gibbons, Assistant National Secretary, United Voice, described some of the problems faced by home care workers.

She described a day in the life of a home care worker, who had her first appointment at 7, and didn’t get home until 4.30 in the afternoon. Yet, this worker but was only paid for 4 hours and 15 minutes’ work.

Ms Gibbons described the carer not being able to stay with her clients and comfort them because she had to race to the next appointment, being held up by traffic, having hours between appointments which weren’t paid, travel time which wasn’t paid, and spending extra time with clients when she could, but not being paid for that time either.

She said that aged care workers want to be able to deliver quality care, have positive relationships, have autonomy, independence, joy, safety, and control, and she said this is what society wants for those workers too.

“To deliver on this vision we share, we need a system that supports the workers,” she said.

“It’s obvious that the provision of quality of care is inextricably linked to the quality of the workforce and the job quality of the workforce.”

Quality aged care jobs allow time to care, have stable and predictable hours, and better pay

She described what a quality job looks like:

  • Carers have time to care. They’re not just performing tasks. “All the skills and qualifications in the world can’t make up for not having adequate time to do the job,” Ms Gibbons said.
  • Predictable and stable hours. Changing rosters, underemployment, unpaid time, and a chaotic distribution of hours make it hard to build a life and commit to the job, she said.
  • Wages that reflect the skills and experience carers have.

These factors are “the only way we can have the workforce this community deserves,” said Ms Gibbons, although it was acknowledged that these improvements may add to the price of care.

Empowering aged care staff benefits the whole industry

Annie Butler, Federal Secretary of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, said empowering staff is beneficial to the whole aged care sector.

She said without enough qualified staff on duty in aged care residences, it’s impossible for them to be properly empowered to do their job to the best of their ability.

“A way to empower is to allow health professionals and care workers to work in better circumstances,” she said.

She told the story of a nurse who had to send a resident to hospital because she didn’t have the support she needed to make decisions herself. The trip to hospital would have cost thousands of dollars, which could have been spent on care, and the trip to hospital would also have caused great emotional disruption to the resident.

Aged care can be a wonderful employment opportunity

Rob Aney, Health Education Officer with the Health Services Union, described a path to empowerment through higher wages, proper career paths, and improved staffing levels.

He said aged care provides a wonderful employment opportunity, both for individuals and providing a wonderful service that brings “love” and “job” to the community

Mr Aney said staffing levels go to the heart of job satisfaction in aged care. He said people want to work in aged care because they want to spend time with residents. But all too often, working in aged care is reduced to performing “mechanical” tasks, rather than responding to “emotional needs”.

He said aged care workers retire with only $18,000 worth of superannuation, on average.

“The reward for devoting your life to working for the elderly is to be facing poverty in your older years,” he said.

Mr Aney said aged care workers often have very little choice and control about their work conditions, and are often told they can simply “take it or leave it”.

Valuing our elderly is the first step to improving conditions in aged care

Ms Butler said governments must set proper standards for staffing in aged care.

She said valuing our elderly is the first step to empowering the people who work in the aged care sector.

“One of the most important things for any of us is to be valued and respected for what we do. Aged care workers are undervalued in an under resourced and undervalued sector,” she said.

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