Opinion: Advocating for compassionate aged care

Professor Sarah Holland-Batt (photo by John Feder/The Australian)

In this guest post, Professor Sarah Holland-Batt, Patron of the grassroots advocacy group Aged Care Reform Now, shares an end-of-year message calling for the need to value and prioritise aged care as a vital aspect of civil society.

How can Australia achieve a safe and compassionate aged care system that we might one day be willing to enter? And how can we improve the quality of life for older Australians in our aged care system today? These are complex questions, but ones we cannot afford to ignore as a society.

Aged care is a service we may all need to rely on one day, and yet many Australians would say it is a system that they hope to never have to enter. Community fears about well-documented, entrenched human rights issues in the aged care sector covered by the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety—such as poor quality care and abuse, inadequate regulation, chronic understaffing, and high levels of neglect, malnutrition, and dehydration—can often lead us to dismiss our aged care system as too confronting or difficult to think about. Ageism, combined with a reluctance to contemplate some of our current system’s most confronting failures, can swiftly turn into apathy.

It is important to remember that when we speak about aged care residents, we are not talking about statistics. We are talking about the most vulnerable citizens in our society, many of whom have helped build and sustain the world we live in today: our grandparents and parents, loved ones, friends and family. We also speak about our future selves when we age.

Grave failures of political leadership have led us to where we are today. For decades, aged care policy settings have been inadequate and inappropriate, and often more focussed on the needs of providers than those of older people in care. Worse, there has been a pronounced lack of urgency in policy reform. For too long, aged care has been a political football.

Australia’s aged care system will not fix itself. And aged care residents—many of whom are highly vulnerable physically, mentally, or both—are often not in the position to be able to advocate for change themselves. This is why it is critical that ordinary citizens become involved in the cause of human rights in aged care, and work together to advocate for older people who may not have a voice themselves.

I became personally involved in advocating for aged care reform due to my father’s experiences in a Queensland aged care home, where he experienced persistent neglect, failures of care, and deliberate abuse. Through this heartbreaking and shocking experience—which started with a complaint to the aged care regulator, and ended up with my testimony at the Royal Commission—I learnt firsthand how Australia’s aged care system can fail an older person. I was stunned that the system did not work to uphold my father’s human rights, and shaken by the apathy of the individuals I encountered along the way whose job it was to care for my father and protect his right to safe and dignified care.

Through my public advocacy, I have heard countless similar stories from Australians who believed the system would protect and care for their loved ones. Some of these citizens also contributed to the Royal Commission’s workings, and shared their own often distressing experiences out of a belief that the mistakes of the past must not be repeated. We owe it to these people not to look away from the difficult work of advocacy just because aged care reform is difficult or confronting.

We are now at a critical inflection point in Australia’s aged care policy. The Royal Commission has handed down its recommendations, and a new aged care act is being drafted. This new act will define the contours of Australia’s aged care system for generations to come. It is crucial that we all do our part as citizens to stand up for vulnerable older Australians in care and push for meaningful and lasting change. We must demand a fairer, kinder, more compassionate aged care system—with high levels of qualified staff, robust regulation and financial transparency—to restore Australians’ faith in aged care, and to improve conditions for those living in the system today. And we owe it to our future selves to be ambitious about the improvements we seek. 

We must advocate for an aged care system based on what we want in our old age. Best practice models overseas—focussing on co-design, and co-location with university students and childcare centres—offer innovative ways of breaking down the segregation of older people, improving their mental health and well-being, and enabling them to remain connected as part of the community. If significant resources are directed to aged care research and innovation, improved models will emerge.

Most of all, we must intrinsically value older Australians and the people who care for them, and recognise and prioritise aged care as a valuable part of a civil and civilised society. The way we treat our most vulnerable citizens reflects who we are as a nation. In a democracy like Australia, all citizens should have equal rights to safety, security, and high-quality care, irrespective of their personal circumstances, class, race, gender—or age.

It’s an honour to serve as Patron of Aged Care Reform Now (ACRN), an organisation dedicated to improving the lives and futures of older Australians in our aged care system. Grassroots organisations like ACRN play an invaluable role in continuing to press for change, and bringing together community voices united by a shared commitment to seek just and safe outcomes for older Australians in care. I hope you will join us.


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