Health Opinion

Aged care like being 'on death row'

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Some aged care residents have likened the experience to being on death row (Screenshot via YouTube)

Blame for the cruel treatment of our elderly doesn't just fall on the aged care sector but on the ignorance of society as well, writes contributing editor-at-large Tess Lawrence.

“I feel like I’m on death row.”

These are not the words of a prisoner in California’s San Quentin awaiting execution or even death by virus.

They are the plaintiff cry of an elderly “inmate” incarcerated in one of Victoria’s notorious coronavirus-infected aged care/nursing homes.

The despicable treatment of residents in this sector has again publicly been laid bare. We’d all be lying if we said we haven’t known for years that some operators are shonky.

Battery farms for use-by date humans

Despite the promissory notes in glossy brochures, some of these mercenary cash cow sheds are little more than battery farms for humans stamped with a use-by date.

We would be forgiven for thinking that the sole reason for aged care homes is to establish a parking lot for geriatrics; to provide mere perfunctory care and services whilst milking as much money from individuals, families, Commonwealth and state governments alike.

Something about it all reminds me of the lyrics of Hotel California, by the Eagles — they can check out any time they like, but they can never leave. Prisoners of their own device. Prisoners by the device of others. As are we all.

Our loved ones and sadly even unloved ones amongst us have been – and remain – betrayed by a system riddled with instances and allegations of rorts, fraud, corruption, double-dipping, overcharging, the cannibalising of government funds and the misrepresentation of services provided.

Cannibalising of government funds and home care packages

Add to this list the lucrative subsidiary industries, home care service providers, case managers and nurse banks, bloated and outrageous management fees, sometimes buried within other services.

There is blatant gouging of home care packages, the subcontracting out of services to sometimes related subcontractors in a cabalistic gravy chain, each link greedily pocketing a percentage of the available funds.

And this ain’t the half of it. It’s ugly. It’s obscene in its venality.

If you think some nursing homes that allege to be not-for-profit are the good guys, forget it.

Not-for-profits are not the good guys

Every aged care institution and service provider should be compelled to publish online the salaries of all executive and management personnel, along with the fees for all services — everything that residents and home care patients have to pay.

As has been exposed within the banking industry, some residents and families have been paying for bogus services. Everything should be transparent, down to the last cent charged by the institution.

Owners, parent companies, investors, election donations, country of origin, management boards, executive teams, bankers and all affiliates should be cited. Ditto, any outsourcing, staff ratios, including staff onsite and those on call. Permanent staff, casual staff. Let’s have none of the usual excuses for secrecy, the maintaining of “commercial confidence”. The sector has long lost that right. As have our politicians.

On that subject, one family member of a nursing home resident told me that monies will be deducted from his dead parent’s hefty “deposit” after he called to enquire about his parent only to find out, after waiting on the phone for ages and speaking with a corps of obfuscating staff who wouldn’t give their names, that his parent had died of COVID-19.

St Basil's faulty towers and Epping Gardens luxe owners

And what of the outrageous fees charged? Let’s zoom in on the unsaintly and controversial St Basil’s Aged Care Homes in Fawkner, for a squizzy.

At the time of writing, with figures drawn from Victoria’s Department of Human Services coronavirus daily update, it is blessed with the ignominious title of holding the state’s aged care record number of “inmates” within an NGO who have contracted the coronavirus.

The home is described as being ‘an activity of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia’. Its website explains that the Residential Accommodation Deposits (RADs) generally ‘are between $350,000 and $650,000’.

There’s information about the ongoing scandal, as well as press statements.

Epping Gardens, part of the Heritage Care portfolio, holds the highest coronavirus record for a privately owned nursing home. It has also achieved notoriety for other reasons in the media, mainly because of the extravagant boastings of wealth and luxury flaunted by its owners.

Not surprisingly, Epping Gardens’ entry RAD is a $100,000 more than St Basil’s. Neither has taken the vow of poverty.

From the Epping Gardens uninformative website that shamefully has no news in its “news” section – not even a coronavirus update that I could find – fees are:

  • Minimum RAD: $450,000
  • Maximum RAD: $650,000

Corpses rotting in aged care beds — owners flaunt wealth

Whilst some of the corpses of those who died of the coronavirus at Epping Gardens lay decomposing in their beds for hours and bodies seemingly wrapped in bedding rather than protective materials wheeled out to transport, photos of the owners wrapped in luxury clothes, draped over luxury cars and featuring luxury homes, were plastered on numerous media platforms.

This was in direct contrast with photos and footage of the parlous state of frail and frightened aged residents being evacuated out of their ragingly infected institution in their pyjamas.

Not about wealth envy but sharing wealth

This is not about wealth envy. It’s about sharing the wealth with those whose monies built your fortune, those who ultimately bought you a brick or two in your luxury homes, clothes and trophy cars.

Add to that the substantial monies and funds from the Government — not really the Government’s money, but monies that came from and belong to the people, for use by, for and of, our aged and disabled, for sure.

The case against private ownership is eclipsed by the case for the Government(s) to reclaim and administer the sector on behalf of the people.

Certainly, that is reflected in the lesser number of coronavirus infections in government-run nursing homes.

Government aged care homes vs private/NGO

It is an important debate yet to be had.

In the second week of Stage 4 lockdown in the state of disaster that now defines Victoria, it looks as if we are peaking insofar as the known statistics say.

Each statistic represents a human being, a sentient creature, even if diagnosed with advanced dementia.

Have you ever seen slow tears trickle down the expressionless face of someone who has dementia and is sitting motionless in a chair whilst others are gathered around, some with their backs turned from her, talking about her, saying things like “her memory is shot“ and “there’s nothing there any more” and “she’s in a vegetative state – has no idea of what’s going on”?

Or “if no one fed her, she wouldn’t eat – can’t do anything for herself – she has nothing to live for – it would be better for her and her family if she did pass away”? You can’t unsee such things. You can’t unhear them.

Shame felt in gratitude

After the small gods left the room, I went to her, knelt down and prised one of her heavily veined hands from the arm of the urine-protected, vinyl-covered chair in which she was sitting.

Her knuckle and finger joints were twisted and knobbled with arthritis.

I kissed her hand and whispered in her ear:

“Thank you for your service to this country. We owe you so much for your courage and bravery.”

She remained expressionless. I cannot say for sure if she heard or understood. I hoped she did. Perhaps for my sake, selfishly, more than hers, because I just felt so ashamed.

A statistic living in a file

There was nothing to see here, they said. But there was everything to see.

When she died, she rose again from the dead and became a statistic, living forevermore in a digital file.

I am thinking of her today and so many others of her generation who are in nursing homes drawn from all walks of life, circumstance and country, at this time of the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and of how the war, like COVID-19 has irrevocably changed our lives and society in general.

Everyone has a story. Not everyone can tell it. It is up to the rest of us to speak up.

She was a nurse during wartime.

Rozen QC cuts through the crap

Peter “Razorsharp” Rozen QC, the feisty Senior Counsel assisting the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, has pointed out that whilst health systems are run by state governments, aged care is managed by the Commonwealth.

Indeed, there have been dire consequences of breakdowns, bickering and blame games between these two jurisdictions.

Further, Rozen has warned that the aged care sector is still not properly prepared to handle COVID-19.

Commissioner Pagone backs aged care response plan now

Co-Commissioner Tony Pagone QC backed up Rozen and said the plans should be implemented now. Is anyone listening?

From The Sydney Morning Herald:

He said “a planned proportionate response to protect the elderly frail residents in the nursing homes from this pernicious virus” was urgently needed.


...Mr Rozen called for the introduction of a dedicated aged care national co-ordinating body, requiring additional staff at facilities so residents could receive more visits and the provision of a list of infection control experts to assist aged care facilities.

Ibrahim is no average Joe — he's an advocate for our aged

One person who, strangely, is deliberately ignored is aged care advocate and academic Professor Joseph Ibrahim, Monash University’s head of Health Law and Ageing Research Unit at the Department of Forensic Medicine.

So often Joe has stood against the tribe and called out governments, regulators and aged care providers.

He continues to be a long-standing whistleblower; a fearless, passionate champion armed with formidable scholarship. 

Where would we be without Dr Norman Swan?

Were it not for the intellect, talent and communication skills of the likes of the ABC’s indefatigable Dr Norman Swan and Professor Joe, politicians, spinmeisters and faux news would surely win the day.

As with Dr Swan’s essential Coronacast podcasts, co-presented with Tegan Taylor, Professor Joe’s team and website that stands for ‘advocacy, education and a voice for the individual in aged care’, is also producing compelling material, with his COVID-19 podcasts, videos and films like the multi-award-winning animated film, The Dignity of Risk.

Both commentators also bridge the dialogue between science, medicine and the community in a helpful and understandable way that talks with us and not down to us. Their sense of humour and irony is a wonderful balm, too.

Why has Professor Joe's help been knocked back?

Like Dr Swan, Professor Joe has impeccable qualifications and Independent Australia can reveal that he has offered his services to both federal and state governments in relation to the aged care sector and the management of COVID-19 — and that his offers have not been accepted. Is it because he doesn’t do spin?

He is regarded as an expert in Australia and overseas, in much the same way as Dr Anthony Fauci is regarded in America.

IA revealed a few weeks ago how Dr Fauci, “Dr America”, warned the world of a pandemic as far back as 2001.

Curious innit, how for so long governments would deride and fob off scientists and medics when they’ve presented evidence of climate change and suchlike — and now rarely do you see a politician front a media conference without their head medical scientist at their side. Except maybe for President Donald Trump and Dr Fauci.

No speakies there.

Why has Professor Joe been rejected for an aged care bedside seat to advocate on behalf of our elders?

As his testimony at various inquiries and royal commissions attest, he’s not a yes man; not a yes person.

He’s an astute problem solver who refuses to be a showpiece voice for politicians and systemic powerplay. His record as a courageous advocate for our aged parents, families, guardians and carers is on the record; he speaks out for those of us intimidated by officialdom and for those who fear retribution for speaking truth to power.

Class action justified by aged care fails

If ever a class action is justified, it is in the realm of the aged care sector and certainly in relation to deaths and injury caused by mismanagement of the coronavirus. Fees to be capped, of course. There are components within state and federal governments and aged care institutions that surely warrant the legal testing of criminal culpability. They have failed us.

We can all have a role to play in keeping vigilant and calling out transgressions in the aged care sector and the body politic.

Fearless investigations, interviews and articles by media colleagues, intelligence gathered from countless informants, insiders, whistleblowers, family members and residents themselves, mean that lies can no longer stand as truth. Experience tells us that everything politicians say must be challenged.

Multicultural communities mistreated

Despite the daily operational update by the Victorian Aged Care Response Centre, the community continues to receive mixed messages, incorrect messages and, at times, no messages at all.

Our multicultural communities have been dismally mistreated. We’re not just talking about the disgraceful and shameful public housing lockdown debacle either, once known better to older Victorians as the “commission flats”.

I know some of those buildings well and have friends who live there.

Official translations into other languages about COVID-19 have rightly been ridiculed as dopey and nonsensical and read like they’ve been translated by Google or Donald Trump.

As a society, we need to support one another in this literal fight — for some, to the death.

Melbourne — most liveable city to most COVIDable city

At one stage, Victoria appeared to be managing the spread of the coronavirus. Then it all started haemorrhaging. Premier Daniel Andrews went from hero to zero in a matter of weeks.

Melbourne, once being regarded as the world’s most liveable city was reduced to Australia’s most COVIDable city.

Victorians are now unwelcome and even banned in other states and territories because we have exported COVID-19 across our borders, some carriers flouting restrictions, causing great harm and cluster outbreaks in areas that had becalmed.

On death row, companions “executed” by neglect

Unquestionably, the elderly woman I spoke with was on death row.

What is more, some of her now dead companions were arguably summarily “executed” through neglect, incompetence, lack of COVID-19 hygiene protection, lack of staff, lack of duty of care, lack of care itself and deprived of basic human rights.

Maybe their deaths can’t be technically classified as murder, but surely they come close to its deadly sibling — manslaughter. Death by a thousand budget cuts.

Unimaginable abuse of elders

Those trapped in such circumstances have endured a type of elder abuse that goes even beyond the stinking and maggoted bedsores we have all come to expect; left to marinate in their own urine and faeces, often in drug-induced suppression, chemical torpor.

Is it a form of human slavery, given the bondage of monies held by providers? Yes, I’ll run with that.

We’ve known for decades that some aged care homes have been the last bus stop to despair and dementia, the end of life journey extinguished neither with a bang nor with a whimper. Instead, in the night in such places, you can sometimes hear the simpering child-like mewling of those without help and without hope.

Sometimes, even heavy-duty drugs fail to suffocate grief and nightmares, the wonderings and wanderings of once stout, robust and energetic members of the community and contributors to our human family. How did it all come down to this? Where am I? Who am I? What am I?

Is this how we thank our parents and grandparents? Our elders?

A cruel future

Some sit like dried flowers in a chipped vase at the window if they’re lucky, dying the slow death that comes with the isolation of the soul and a stolen sense of self.

We shan’t name her or the nursing home. Why not? Because we are protecting those who confided in us. We have undertaken not to reveal our vulnerable sources.

Residents in nursing homes have suffered shocking payback for seemingly simple things, like complaining to family members about tea being cold.

We alleged grown-ups are leaving the younger a desecrated environment and a future cruelled by political, corporate and individual venality. That much we know.

But in this disease-ravaged state, in particular, the plight of our elderly, the frail, the disabled, those ill in mind and body, the disadvantaged and others languishing on the marginalia of life is a shameful indictment on us all. For too long we have averted our eyes. Our hearts. Our conscience.

We have dehumanised our aged. It is not only the “system” that is guilty. We are sometimes a diffident, vain, society obsessed with material possessions rather than the predicament of those dispossessed, out of sight, our elders.

Legacy left by aged better than that we will bequeath

The legacy they left us was so much better than the plundered bounty we shall bequeath to our children and grandchildren. It is the difference between a banquet and a begging bowl.

After several months of interviews, discussions as well as translations by family members, I hasten to add, it is clear that the intersection between community, authorities, state and federal governments, the aged care sector and the coronavirus is onerous. There is more to add in the coming weeks.

For the most part, we’ve communicated with so-called “ordinary people” for their first-hand accounts and opinions.

When I told a health worker in one of the aged care homes about the woman who said she felt as if she was on death row, the worker replied with four words:

“She’s right. She is.”

Maybe that was why the tear trickled down the face of the elderly wartime nurse.

Disclaimer: Of course there are well-run aged care homes. I’m not referring to them. Nor is this article referring to health care workers of any kind. What is more, a special shout-out to health workers and everyone on the frontline and also the many thousands of wonderful people in the community who have us all in their cheery and kind embrace.

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