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Thursday, 1 November 2012
Page: 8896

Senator McEWEN (South AustraliaGovernment Whip in the Senate) (19:48): Tonight I would like to make mention of some innovative aged-care and health initiatives funded by the Gillard Labor government in the South Australian electorate of Barker and, in particular, in the regional city of Murray Bridge.

Before I discuss those initiatives, I would like to congratulate two Murray Bridge doctors who were this week announced as the joint winners of the Telstra Rural Doctors Association of Australia Rural Doctor of the Year Award 2012. Dr Martin and Dr Fiona Altmann have both worked in general practice in Murray Bridge as well as providing obstetric, anaesthetic, surgical and intensive care services to the local hospital. The doctors have demonstrated an outstanding commitment to rural health and community service and are very worthy winners of the award.

The rural city of Murray Bridge has a population of about 19,000 people and it is predicted to grow to 30,000 people by 2025. It is one of the most buoyant regional economies in South Australia. While the population will increase, so too will the number of elderly residents in the area.

As we know the Gillard Labor government are committed to ensuring Australia has a quality aged-care system that meets the needs of the future. For this reason, we have implemented a number of initiatives to make certain that every Australian, no matter where they live and what their financial means, receive the high quality aged care they deserve. The government believe that it is important for older Australians to live independently in their own homes, if they wish to do so, for as long as they wish. However, we recognise that as you get older everyday tasks—things like unscrewing a lid on a jar or getting dressed in the morning—can become a challenge. We are therefore increasing access to care and support services in the home so people can remain comfortably there for as long as possible. To help us achieve this we rely on the cooperation and support of thousands of local aged-care organisations across the country. The Murray Mallee Aged Care Group in Murray Bridge is just one of those organisations. Operating across the Murraylands and the Murray Mallee region, the organisation has been providing tailored, in-home support services specific to the needs of elderly residents for almost 20 years.

For older people residing in regional areas, the effect of ageing can be exacerbated through the change in family and social structures, including fewer children and grandchildren living locally to provide support. In 2009 the MMACG received a federal government grant of $1.1 million to explore the benefits of assistive technology and telehealth in the care of older Australians. Together with researchers from the University of Adelaide's Australian Population and Migration Research Centre, the MMACG have spent the past three years exploring how resources, aged-care services and activities could be provided to the elderly in regional areas through technologies such as iPads and laptop computers and through the training in how to use those devices.

It was with great pleasure a few weeks ago that I represented the Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, Mark Butler, at the official release of the findings into the research project, which was called 'Linking rural older people to community through technology'. In what was a very entertaining afternoon, I heard in great detail all about how the study was conducted, the outcomes of the study, and the many jokes, laughs and challenges encountered along the way.

While conducting the study, the researchers discovered that of all the candidates in the interview phase, 50 per cent had all family ties located more than 100 kilometres away from their homes. Additionally, only 8.1 per cent of those interviewed had used email or the internet previously, mainly to keep in touch with family and friends. From the outset, this research project was going to be a challenge. But with many dedicated workers and volunteers, and with a large group of elderly people willing to learn, it was most certainly going to be worthwhile. It was clear from the start of the study that the participants wanted to learn. They wanted to be involved in the information technology age and they wanted to be able to use the new technologies with ease. One comment from a participant was they wanted to be involved to know what their grandchildren are talking about. Another simply said they wanted to keep up with modern technology and keep in touch with family. There were, as to be expected, many ups and downs during the study. However, the outcomes were positive. Results indicated that for participants using new technologies not only to keep in touch with family and friends but also to maintain contact with care providers, their self-rated health outcomes increased dramatically, there was a decrease in feelings of loneliness and they found it much easier to access community information.

Ninety-one-year-old Ken Goody was one of the participants in the trials. He lives 250 kilometres east of Adelaide in the small Mallee town of Pinnaroo. He learnt how to use an iPad. He said, 'When I've got nothing else to do I play games on it and every day I start it up to see if there's any emails.' Ken went on to say that he checked his email first thing in the morning and last thing at night to see if he had heard from anyone. He said: 'I'm living on my own. I still like somebody to speak to and, if necessary, I phone up my granddaughter and have a word with her or send an email to my oldest daughter or my youngest daughter and it keeps me in touch with everybody.'

Through the technology, participants had found a new confidence and a new lease on life. Indeed, Alastair said that, after suffering from a stroke, he used the iPad to rediscover his passion for reading using iBooks, and also started studying by correspondence to become an ESL teacher. Using an iPad to read was much easier than using books because he did not have to physically turn the pages. Another participant, Jeanette, who lives alone, used the iPad to play online games and encouraged her sister to also buy one, so now they play the games together as well as communicate with each other on Skype.

At the conclusion of the study, results overwhelmingly proved that given the right device, along with personalised and localised training and support, older people of all ages will take up and continue to use new technologies to keep better connected to family, friends and the community. The participants responded very favourably, saying things like, 'I have realised you are never too old to learn new technology' and 'I'm not as dumb as I thought.' Everyone involved in the MMACG project deserves our heartfelt thanks for their great work. The federal Labor government's investment in this study helped prove that technology can combat loneliness in the elderly. It also demonstrated that technology can improve the life of the elderly at home by supporting and enhancing positive ageing experiences.

Along with the government's aged-care reforms, we are also working to improve the nation's health system. In the cities and regional areas one of the government's priorities has been increasing the numbers of allied health professionals. We realise that health reform cannot and will not occur without having the right number of appropriately trained doctors, nurses and medical staff on hand when you need them. For this reason, I was delighted to return to Murray Bridge last week to attend the opening of the Flinders University Rural Clinical School building, funded through a $1.46 million grant from the federal Labor government's Increased Clinical Training Capacity program. The modern, efficient new clinical building will increase the training capacity for doctors, nurses and allied health students across Murray Bridge and the northern areas of South Australia. This is great news for students and for the region. Not only will this facility help to increase the clinical training capacity in the Murray Bridge area and northern regions of the state, it will also ensure that all trainee health professionals educated there will be able to work with real people professionally across a broad range of settings and in multidisciplinary areas.

While training our future medical professionals is one thing, I know that for many regional towns across Australia retaining those medical professionals is often a task in itself. For this reason, through our health reform package, the government has also committed an extra $34.9 million in the 2012-13 federal budget to meet the increased demand of GPs wanting to move to and remain in rural and remote communities such as Murray Bridge. Our government's commitment to improving the education and training of our junior medical professionals, combined with our initiatives to retain GPs in regional areas, are great steps forward in ensuring that Australia's health system will suit our nation into the future and will serve our Australians who live in regional areas.

On my recent trips to Murray Bridge, I saw firsthand the benefits of the Gillard Labor government's investments in the area. I visited the area a lot last year and earlier this year for BER ceremonies, and I know that government investments instil a great sense of pride in communities like Murray Bridge. I congratulate all of the community organisations in Murray Bridge and the local government there. They have a great track record in securing federal government funding and for using that funding wisely, efficiently and for the benefit of Australians lucky enough to live in one of our great regional cities.

Senate adjourned at 19:57