Biggest challenge lies in returning trust lost in Australia’s aged care system

We approach every New Year with a sense of optimism, don’t we?

In the early days of January, once the frenetic lead up to Christmas is behind us and public holidays have made us forget what day it is, we stop for just a moment to contemplate what this year will bring.

This year, we tell ourselves, we’ll stress less, exercise more, spend quality time with our family.

Then, in a matter of days or weeks, we fall back into old habits.

Life is busy, of course, and probably busier than it’s ever been. That could come down to the stage of where I am in life, a member of the so-called “sandwich generation”.

What an apt term. It describes middle-aged adults aged 40–59 who are sandwiched between raising young kids and helping their ageing parents.

The trends aren’t surprising — life expectancy at birth in Australia was about 50 at the time of federation, and is now edging toward 90.

In 1976, most people having babies were in their twenties. Today, most people are in their thirties or older.

I’m a bloke of course, and I see every day the lion’s share of these responsibilities fall to women, and this really is at odds with boosting women’s workforce participation. It’s stretching everyone thinner, sometimes to breaking point.

But the Albanese Government went to the last election with a promise to address these fundamental pressures on the sandwich generation, for the good of the whole family.

We’re on track to deliver more affordable and accessible child care this year, with my colleagues Jason Clare, Minister for Education, and Dr Anne Aly, Minister for Early Childhood Education and Youth, set to cut the cost of early education and care for around 1.26 million Australian families.

This will ease cost of living pressures but, more importantly, will give parents more options for support.

Amanda Rishworth, Minister for Social Services, is also introducing reforms to paid parental leave, providing more choice and more support for families, and more opportunity for women.

The saying “it takes a village to raise a child” is still true — even if our villages have changed.

But I’d argue our biggest challenge lies in returning the trust that has been lost in our aged care system, to ease the stress and guilt families face when considering aged care options.

Our predecessors left aged care in this country in crisis, after years of neglect on the Coalition’s watch.

Imagine — or remember — the day you realise your once robust mum or dad can no longer care for themselves. Whether through ageing, illness or injury, they reach a point where they need more help than you and your busy household — or that of your siblings — can provide.

After you grapple with the emotion of that prospect, you then encounter the foreign world of aged care options.

It’s usually something no one thinks about until they must, and quite often they need to get up to speed fast; you have three days until mum or dad is discharged from hospital and by then you need to be an expert.

On the back of years of horror stories of mistreatment in these very facilities, it’s no surprise people are lying awake in bed at night about this stuff.

It’s also no secret that aged care is a real focus for the Albanese Government. We’re already making inroads.

One of the really important things we’ve just delivered on to make aged care more transparent and accountable is the introduction of star ratings for residential aged care homes. Star ratings were a key recommendation of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety and help people review providers based on residents’ experience, staffing levels, compliance, and quality measures.

We’re all used to star ratings — they give people a really quick and easy guide. A place to start.

Anika Wells, Minister for Aged Care, announced the first round of ratings last month, with 37 per cent receiving four or five stars, 54 per cent receiving three stars and 9 per cent receiving one or two stars.

Also, thanks to the work of unions who represent aged care workers, meaningful wage rises in the industry are finally being delivered.

In my own portfolio, government services, I’ve also received generous and genuine feedback about the introduction of aged care specialist officers in Services Australia sites.

This is a face-to-face service to help older Australians, their families and carers to start planning for future care needs.

Again, it’s a practical, simple service that helps educate families about their options. There have been thousands of appointments across the country since the service was introduced last year. The ACSOs can talk through a person’s individual situation and discuss options that will best suit their needs.

It’s such a human approach, which is really important.

We all know there is nuance in these discussions. Can mum still cope with dad’s care needs at home? How will the family cope emotionally with the prospect of selling the family home? Is that even necessary?

The ACSOs are now in about 81 locations nationally and I’d encourage anyone lying in bed awake at night about their own mum or dad to consider taking advantage of the service.

In fact, I think we can remain optimistic about what 2023 will bring. Maybe with a few of these reforms we can stress less, and spend more quality time with family. We’ll see about the exercise.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday 11 January 2023.