What’s behind the Australia-wide aged care home closures and where can we go from here?

It’s a turbulent time to be working in the aged care sector. In an industry already plagued by low pay and disproportionately high stress—which results in ongoing staffing shortages—the recent government policy changes have added even more pressure. But what are the ins and outs of this new policy? Why is it causing care homes to close? And what is being done to combat these effects?

New 24/7 nursing policy leads to widespread care home closures

When the Albanese government won the election in 2022, it was part of their promise to introduce round-the-clock nursing into aged care homes—and they planned to execute this ambitious plan within a year, by July 2023 (Butler, Evans & Jennet, 2023). So, from July, all aged care homes must have a registered nurse on-site 24 hours a day. And as this deadline looms, and aged care providers scramble to find the necessary staff, care homes have begun to shut down (Remeikis, 2023).

Wesley Mission has announced that their three remaining homes will close by the end of May (Meacham, 2023), while Western Australia’s Brightwater Care Group are the latest to confirm that three of their Perth homes will shut down in the next 12 months (Remeikis, 2023).

In a sector that’s already been facing widespread staffing shortages and financial problems, it’s no surprise that these closures are predicted to continue. ‘You just simply cannot create an immediate workforce,’ said Kylie Ward, Australian College of Nursing CEO, calling for some exemptions from the July deadline (Wynne, 2023).

Despite initial pushback, the government agrees to refine the policy

The closures and pushback from the care sector have taken a while to impact the government. In mid-April, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese stated that the government would make ‘no apology’ for the nursing requirement (Ikonomou, 2023), and Annika Wells, Aged Care Minister, added that they were ‘being ambitious for aged care’ and 24/7 nursing would ‘help restore dignity to older people’ (Remeikis, 2023).

However, the urgency of these changes has led to what a Brightwater resident’s daughter said is “a scary time to have a loved one in residential aged care” (Wynne, 2023).

Thankfully, the government has somewhat relented, engaging the University of Wollongong to spend six months developing alternative arrangements that can be used when a nurse isn’t available (Sky News, 2023). But even though they are in the process of developing these solutions, it doesn’t stop other experts across the sector from troubleshooting ideas—and at this point, any methods that can be used to relieve the pressure on nurses and the entire sector will be beneficial.

Solutions brought to the table

The consensus seems to be that the idea of round-the-clock nursing isn’t the problem, it’s the staff shortages that make it difficult to fulfil. So, both National Seniors Australia and Bupa have put forward suggestions to fix this.

National Seniors Australia chief advocate Ian Henschke said that at the moment pensioners are discouraged from staying in the workforce. He suggests that if care sector workers are made exempt from the ‘harsh pension income test’ then they can work as much as they want—without reporting to Centrelink—and can fill the gaps in staffing (National Seniors Australia, 2023). And the idea from Bupa is similar, as they are pointing to New Zealand, where the country made changes to the pension and tax system and now has ten times more pensioners working than in Australia (Alesna, 2023).

Aged & Community Care Providers Association CEO, Tom Symondson, has also added to the conversation, stating that part of the problem is providers not seeking help before closing care homes. “If you’re considering doing something, tell us, because we do have experts in our team, we have an advisory team,” he said. “There are sources of funding. They’re not huge, but there will be things that the department might be able to do.” (Egan, 2023).

How can technology support the load?

As the aged care sector grapples with the effects of this new policy and awaits a solution from the government, the people on the ground will be dealing with the resulting everyday struggles. Staff shortages and increasing responsibilities translate to an overburdened workforce—and it’s the vulnerable residents who feel the true disadvantages of this.

New technology could be part of the solution, as automation of low-value tasks can reduce the pressure on staff. Kinatico CEO, Michael Ivanchenko, says that reducing the time spent on jobs like manual compliance monitoring means organisations can focus on the overwhelming challenges facing the industry in 2023—like attracting and retaining the staff required to meet minimum staffing ratios.

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