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Tuesday, 20 September 1994
Page: 996

Senator SANDY MACDONALD (4.36 p.m.) —I am pleased to follow my colleagues Senator Newman and Senator Patterson, both dedicated to the welfare of our community of all ages both old and young. I particularly commend both of them on their contribution today on this important MPI. Today we are focused on the needs of older Australians, particularly those suffering dementia. We must remember that we are dealing with people and the way that people live their lives. We should not be preoccupied with programs, categories and placing people in little boxes. This government seems preoccupied with putting people in a box and giving it a label.

  There is a pressing need to recognise and address this increasingly important area of the care and welfare of the aged. If a nation cannot look after the old and infirm then who can it look after? We are talking about a generation that gave us the prosperity of the 1950s, the 1960s and the 1970s and who are now at the age where Australians should acknowledge a greater responsibility for them.

  One of the great pleasures that I have found—and I am sure I share it with a number of other honourable senators—is meeting the incredibly wide range of decent and selfless Australians carrying out a service for their fellows without great or in fact frequently no financial reward. This is part of the uniqueness of this country, part of the uniqueness of being Australian. None fit into this category better than those who work in nursing homes and hospitals caring for the extended stay aged patients, and for the carers who look after the elderly in their homes.

  The valuable contribution carers make to Australian society saves the nation an estimated $24 billion a year because about 50 per cent of dementia sufferers are cared for at home. The rapidly growing number of home carers for older Australians suffering with dementia is not sufficiently understood nor being addressed by this government and this situation can only intensify. It can only intensify because over the next three decades the number of elderly people in Australia will grow at twice the rate of the population as a whole.

  While a quarter of our population is presently over 50 years of age, by the year 2021, which is not very far away, this will increase to one-third. The fastest growing sector will be those over 85 years: in 2021 there will be three times as many people aged over 85 as there are today. Without home carers the community would not be able to support the growing number of elderly people suffering from dementia. The problem will only become worse as the decades go past.

  I am afraid to say that the recognition of this role of carers is sadly lacking. Provision for carers to take a break from this sometimes highly stressful and full-time work is totally inadequate. Senator Patterson pointed out that these dedicated workers from respite care are often the lifesavers of home carers, but they can only do so much. Extra funding is urgently needed, as has been pointed out already.

  Access to information, services and emotional support is also overlooked. The home carer's role is undervalued, unpaid, unrecognised and ignored. It is also true to say that the carers themselves are growing older and, in many ways, this places unrealistic burdens on their shoulders. Also true is the fact that the home carers—70 per cent of whom are women—have in many cases had to give up a job, which has caused social isolation and a deterioration in physical and psychological health. Carers who are out of the work force for a long time lose their skills and confidence. The sandwich effect—when carers are caught up between caring for their children and their elderly and infirmed relations—makes it very difficult for carers to return to the work force when they eventually have the chance.

  As has been pointed out, some carers work a 36-hour day—and I mean a 36-hour day—and have not had respite from their responsibility for years. Statistics show that over a third have never been absent from their responsibilities for more than four hours. This raises the issue of the health and well-being of carers. It is not possible for people with caring responsibilities to sustain their own emotional and physical health if they do not have reasonable breaks and adequate support. One of the biggest issues in easing the burden on carers is communication. Just knowing that someone else is aware of the problems and willing to listen and talk about them is an enormous help. The use of phone links should be encouraged—even the sound of another voice is incredibly helpful sometimes.

  It is important that the frail and elderly are not shunted off to nursing homes until they die. It is important that they receive adequate care in their homes if appropriate. But this care has a human cost, a cost that goes seemingly unrecognised in our society. This is particularly so in this age of the nuclear family.

  Some of the stories that have been mentioned today in the Senate show the incredible pain that some of these carers go through. In one of the letters that I have seen, the carer was asked how she coped in the beginning. She replied, `With great difficulty.' She had been told, `It will get worse,' and it did. She said that the pain as she looked into her husband's face filled her with sadness and confusion. It certainly was not the retirement that they had planned. They were both 60 years of age. I conclude by asking the government to mark the International Year of the Family as a year when this vital area of older Australians is sympathetically treated. (Time expired)