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Thursday, 2 June 2011
Page: 5732

Mr FORREST (Mallee) (11:29): I am pleased to have an opportunity to offer some comments in regard to a very important subject, aged care, in the context of this bill, the Aged Care Amendment Bill 2011. In all my time as a member of the federal parliament representing the good people of Mallee, aged care has been the issue that has kept the office busiest in ongoing representation both directly to the operators of aged-care facilities and to governments in all places. It is certainly a top-of-mind issue across the north-west of Victoria. In fact, in my own case, going back many years before my time in parliament, I had to find accommodation for my late father, way back as far as 1990, through the terrible nineties. I remember my mother saying to me, 'Son, someone must go to Canberra and get this fixed up,' as we waited, like so many families wait, for the place and acceptable care that we as a family wanted for someone we loved dearly. Sadly, my mum has now passed on as well.

It is somewhat refreshing to be able to say that the nature of the workload has changed over the years, although some very deep concerns remain. That is especially the case for the baby boomer generation that is coming on, which probably includes me, which has very high expectations for the standard of accommodation it will receive. Another, very serious issue is that of finding suitable accommodation for dementia patients across north-west Victoria.

I am in general support of the legislation—it is necessary—but I support the coalition parties' amendment, which highlights and gives us an opportunity to talk about the restrictions that apply with regard to regulation and to express our disappointment at the government's broken promise to the sector, made at the last election, that it would relieve some of the intense paperwork. I recall the government's commitment that for every new regulation it would find one it could repeal. When I spend time with the excellent nursing staff and professional people who look after our aged-care residents, I find their constant complaint to me is about the amount of time they spend attending to the paperwork, relating to the particular plan of care for a patient, that is needed for accreditation. It is fairly rigorous and it is time consuming. It takes them away from the ward and from the beds where they are needed most to ensure that the clients of aged-care facilities are well looked after.

Mallee would probably have the largest number of aged-care facilities of all the electorates in Australia—there are 47 in total. I have not had time to check every other constituency, but that is a huge number and reflects the fact that every small community across the north-west of Victoria has a small aged-care facility. Some of them are very small, their bed numbers can be as low as 10 or 15, which makes sustainability a challenging issue for them. In fact, as a result of the recent redistribution in Victoria, Mallee has grown yet again. The member for Mallee now represents the fine rural city of Stawell, which means two more aged-care facilities there—the Macpherson Smith nursing home and Eventide—will become part of his responsibility.

The 47 aged-care facilities in Mallee are of a mixed nature. They are predominantly community owned organisations. A lot of them come out of the old post-war bush nursing hospital model—they are basically owned by communities. There are only two professional, for-profit aged-care facilities run by private operators in my entire electorate, which are in the strong provincial city of Mildura. The rest are operated either by government agencies or by not-for-profit church groups and community owned organisations.

The compliance issues, as I have mentioned, are a chore. I have been very alarmed at the willingness of health departments, particularly in Victoria, to launch into punitive action for what I consider to be minor breaches of the paperwork trail. I have been disappointed with that and have expressed that disappointment to the department. Over the last two or three years, three of my organisations have been put into one level of sanction, not because they did something wrong, not because someone's rights were abused or they suffered some terrible incident in the nursing home, but because of the potential for that to occur. I think that is a bit harsh and sends very strong signals to my organisations. As a result, they have been spending an inordinate amount of time, I believe, on the regulation and the paperwork, when their attention really ought to be at the coalface. They should be making sure that those people who are in nursing homes and hostels are enjoying their twilight years and that their families are content that their loved ones are receiving the best possible care and attention.

Last week, I had representations from a family from Mildura. Their loved one has a very severe case of dementia and is so disoriented he becomes violent. They were very concerned because three accommodation options have been tried for this man and it looks like he may have to move as far away as Bendigo, which will require a 5½-hour car drive when the family visits him. He needs really particular care because his dementia is so disorienting that he becomes violent with anybody who tries to manage and offer care to him. It is a very sad situation. I am advised by Alzheimer's Australia that dementia is going to be a massive challenge for the nation in the next 30 years. In fact, last year they said to me that the likelihood is that Mallee will have a dramatic increase in the number of dementia sufferers, which reflects what they predict will happen for the rest of the nation. They predict that dementia will tip 246,000 people in Victoria by 2050. Unless there are some medical breakthroughs that can meet the challenge of understanding why this disease occurs, the impacts on my constituency will mean a 443 per cent increase in dementia sufferers in north-western Victoria. That is a frightening concept. On top of the challenges that my aged-care facilities currently endure, meeting a demand like that is going to be a huge challenge. It will mean a huge amount of capital. It will be the responsibility of this place to ensure that the parliament can assist them in a task like that.

I remember from my own family's experience that it is a terrible and traumatic time for families as they go through finding suitable and acceptable accommodation for their loved one. It is a terrible time and loved ones do not necessarily think or express themselves clearly. I have noticed in the last few months, particularly with the events that have occurred in north-western Victoria with the floods and now the loss of two aged-care facilities—one in Donald was flooded and basically has to be rebuilt and the other was in Charlton; that is about 80-odd residents that are now scattered across north-western Victoria trying to find alternative accommodation as the community and governments decide what the future of Charlton and Donald really is—the number of representations coming through to my office increasing as a result of that as families are faced with the prospect of a two- or three-hour drive to see their loved one. That is just not acceptable.

I am calling on particularly the Victorian government to find a quicker resolution to the challenges in Charlton. It needs a new hospital, it needs a new medical surgery and it needs a new aged-care facility. They were all in one complex that was completely wiped out in the January floods. And that was their third flood in less than six months. That has put pressure on the issue of aged care in Mallee, and I am looking forward to working with both governments to find a much readier solution to that issue there.

I would like to put on the record my appreciation for the tremendous staff who support and provide the care in these facilities. I often say that there are two professions that have my enduring affection. One is school teachers, who spend more time with our children than we as parents do, and the other is nurses. That is not because I am married to one; it is because of the wonderful work they do. Sometimes it is tireless, sometimes it is in the middle of the night and sometimes, with the nature of the illnesses of aged people, it is the same old thing over and over again. Yet, there they are, tending in a caring way. It gives enormous comfort to families when they see their loved ones being treated well.

This legislation makes it a little easier for a complaint to be made. Often the complaints are minor but the residents are reluctant to make them. I remember at one institution—I will not say where it was—where all the resident wanted was to have bananas in her diet on a regular basis and was frightened to ask, reflecting the nature of country people, who do not like to be considered troublemakers. All she wanted was banana in her diet on a regular basis. I was able to put that question and have it fixed. But if patients and people who are in these facilities have a reluctance to put their case then I do not think that is fair. Often unhappiness could be avoided if the process for making a complaint was much easier and the person making the complaint was confident that there would not be repercussions.

I support this legislation. I am appreciative of the fact that it has come forward. It is confirming and making much clearer the responsibilities for the huge number of deposits that are now in place for aged-care homes. I think it is in the order of $12 billion. It is accumulating all the time. I think access to that level of capital is helping to alleviate some of the problems of limitation of capital to improve the conditions in some of the facilities across my constituency. I am generally in support of the bill and I thank the government for putting it forward.