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A couple of days ago I was contacted by the son of an aged care nurse, asking if I’d be happy to link to an article he’d written. I’ve been meaning for some time to write an entry about aged care in Australia, and Tariq has kindly done a wonderful job himself.

Australia’s aged care nurses under fire
Australia’s shortage of aged-care nurses doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Leading Age Services Australia projects a 66,000 shortfall in home care places by 2050 according to the Sydney Morning Herald, and 83,000 new nursing homes will be needed within the next decade.

Considering the difficulty that Aged care nurses are having meeting current demand, the newly-elected Prime Minister has devised an approach to this threat that is novel, to say the least.

He’s taking away their money.

In a move described as “mean-spirited” by Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) Federal Secretary Lee Thomas, Mr. Abbott plans to walk away from a $1.2 billion Labour-implemented scheme that would have granted much-needed pay rises to Australia’s 350,000 aged care workers. Instead, the funds will go into the aged care funding pool.

This has been tried before, and the result is entirely predictable.

According to Thomas, “Since 2002 there has been a range of Government funding initiatives directed at enhancing the capacity of aged care employers to offer competitive wages, including $211 million over four years in the 2002-03 Budget and a further $877.8 million over years from 2004.  Unfortunately, these additional amounts were not tied to bargaining and consequently hardly any nurses or assistants in nursing saw any benefit ”[italics added].

Nurses in aged care already receive between $168 and $300 a week less than their colleagues in public hospitals. What’s worse, while aged care workers are among the lowest-paid members of the health care community, the challenges they face are among the most difficult. Aged care introduces a host of new issues, the dementia epidemic is growing and dehydration and malnutrition become more difficult to diagnose.

Baby Boomers will overwhelm nursing homes over the next 20 years. Australia’s aging population is going to require some 20,000 more aged-care nurses. Labour’s plan was designed to help the aged care workforce almost triple in size by 2050.

Mr Abbott’s rollback will do the opposite, shrinking the number of aged care workers. The life of an aged-care worker is already a harried one. Their workloads can be unmanageable. The absence of nationally mandated nurse to patient ratios and the long hours (according to the ANMF, nearly one in four nurses works double-shifts), exacerbate the challenges of an already difficult profession.

A recent story on ABC’s Lateline highlighted the inability of many aged care facilities to perform such essential tasks as feeding, hydrating, and toileting their charges. The result of this, according to ANMF, is that 23 percent of nurses plan to leave the profession within the year.

Surely, Mr Abbott must realize that if these matters are not addressed as a matter of urgency, new nursing graduates will not choose aged care. In the face of a nursing shortage, the profession needs to become more, rather than less appealing.

Thus far, Mr Abbott has only offered stopgap solutions to these issues, like 457 visas, which Thomas rightly describe as a “band-aid” solution.

The solutions are obvious. In Thomas’s words

The only viable way of recruiting and retaining aged care nurses is to pay close the wages gap and pay them what they rightly deserve. This will ensure that there is a sustainable, skilled workforce is available in sufficient numbers.

Australians must not wait until it is too late to take action. Mr Abbott needs to know that placing the $1.2 billion specifically allocated for better wages into a general funding pool is the same as directly taking the money away from nurses and other care staff. For the sake of Australia’s most vulnerable, write to Mr Abbott himself, contact your local Member of Parliament, call talkback radio, get on to your social media platforms, or write to your newspaper of choice. – Tariq Osborne