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Wednesday, 22 August 2001
Page: 30061


Ms ELLIS (11:45 AM) —I value the opportunity today to briefly contribute to this debate on the Health and Aged Care Legislation Amendment (Application of Criminal Code) Bill 2001, which, as we have heard from previous speakers, covers a very broad range of subjects within the health and aged care legislation and brings into conformity many aspects of that legislation. It is also fair to say that the subject of aged care generally is a big and growing concern among many in my community and among others elsewhere in Australia. Governments have a vital role to play in ensuring appropriate levels of care for older folk who require special care in a particular facility or within their own homes. No matter who is in government, the role of the Commonwealth government is integral to that service provision.

Canberra has a statistically smaller percentage of older folk than the national average, given the nature of the ACT and its history. Nevertheless, the numbers are increasing and, proportionally, the demands on services and the demands on systems are growing. It has been sad in recent times to see residents requiring what we now term psychogeriatric services, for want of a better term. People who have pretty severe dementia and Alzheimer's disease reach a point where they need very special care. Unfortunately, at the moment in Canberra we do not have that facility. I am very anxious to see that we do something about that, given the level of stress and distress that is caused to the individual and to the families involved in situations like that.

I have heard—and I give credit to the ACT government in this instance—that a small number of beds may be opening very shortly which will begin to address the psychogeriatric problem in Canberra. If that is the case, as I am led to believe it might be, I welcome that initiative, especially given the enormous social and family problems that face some of these folk. However, it would be nice if we did not have to have a crisis before we had a result—and I do not think I am being unfair in saying that. I hope we can track it a bit better in the future. The same could be applied to the area of respite care. Everything I am saying probably impacts on every member of the House who shares my concerns on behalf of their communities.

Respite care is a very severe problem in many communities. We have a wonderful respite care facility in my electorate which performs a terrific service. That facility is so good that it is usually booked out 12 months or more in advance. That facility is booked out by families whose older folk are being cared for at home. The families are in a position of having to plan holidays or medical needs or whatever in advance. They can therefore appropriately lodge their needs for respite care, but if there is an urgent need for respite care—and that could be because of illness of the carer, a crisis for the person requiring the respite care, or another family emergency of some kind—it is really needed right there and then. I do not necessarily have the answer to this problem, but it is something that we need to consider very carefully. When that sort of emergency occurs, it is more than distressing to the family to know that they cannot get assistance when they require it.

I would like to think that, no matter who is in government and no matter who is in charge of or debating the issues relating to aged care, we can somehow highlight—and I am taking the advantage of doing that here this morning—this very important social need within our communities. We should not have a pot luck sort of attitude to this that you happen to get the help if you are lucky. I know that the families that have come to me in my electorate in recent times have not felt lucky at all. They are not critical in a political sense; they are just critical of a system that does not seem able to respond to their need when they have it. We have actually had distressing photos on the front page of the local paper of old people being shipped interstate, to Goulburn and elsewhere, because they have not been able to receive the service they need here. I think that any one of us would not like to see that happening within any of our communities, and we probably all have at different times seen it happen. I just think we need to take the time to highlight that and to do what we can collectively to try and address it.

The other very brief point I want to make is in relation to people awaiting access to a permanent place, be it low level or high level, within aged facilities. Some of them are in hospitals. Some of them are at home. Many of those who are in hospitals may be fortunate enough to go on to rehab services and return to their homes but some of them may not. Some of them are actually sitting there awaiting the allocation of a place with their family waiting with them. While we have stresses within our hospital systems, I do not think it is helpful, on that level of the debate, to have those places occupied in this way. I think more importantly the care that that older person requires should not be serviced by sitting in a ward bed in a hospital when they really need that very careful, nurturing love and care that these facilities are able to provide for them. I think we need to have a very clear picture and a very honest look at where the pressures and the priorities are and attempt as much as we can collectively to address them in the best way that we can.

The last thing that I would want to do would be to play with this in some political fashion. That is not my intent. My intent is to try and have an honest discussion about where the requirements are, where those pressures are, where people in our communities need that sort of help and how we, as a federal parliament, can assist in that. I would doubt very much that anyone in the parliament would disagree with the sentiments that I am expressing here today.

In concluding my brief remarks, I would just say that the overwhelming majority of those people who are out there working in the aged care sector—and some of the ramifications of this bill will come across them in different ways—approach their work in an incredibly honest fashion. They dedicate themselves to the task at hand. They are in a sector that I believe professionally for them is undervalued in comparison to other nursing or care sectors. Yet when any one of us Australians is surveyed to give a view as to how we believe we ought to treat the older people in our communities we say we would not wish in any sense at all to have them in a sector which is serviced in an undervalued way.

I think that the other part of this debate is for us to somehow build into our systems a way of financially and socially gearing those services and the people within them to meet on an equal level the expectations that we all have in terms of the care of our older people. If we could gain nothing else but that within the federal parliamentary system I think we would be doing an extremely good service, let alone the other things I have talked about this morning which are far more monetarily geared than in the sense of the workers within the aged care sector to which I have to pay absolute due homage.

I am now in a position of personally experiencing this sector and I can say, without any equivocation whatsoever, that I have not met one person in this sector who is not dedicated to it, cares about it passionately and really would like, I believe, to provide the absolute highest level of care and the highest level of dedication and who sometimes resource-wise by government or by institution may be frustrated in doing so. I would like to believe that through the federal parliamentary system we take every opportunity to highlight this particular area of our community, to talk about it in a very honest way and to do what we can to elevate the priority we put on it, the honesty we apply to it and the level to which we value those who are working within the system generally.