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Wednesday, 16 March 2005
Page: 184

Mrs ELLIOT (12:05 PM) —I am very pleased to be speaking today in relation to the report of the Standing Committee on Health and Ageing on future ageing. Our population is getting older. Life expectancy is improving. Over the past 30 years life expectancy has increased by more than five years for men and just under four years for women. Nowhere is this better reflected than in my electorate of Richmond. My electorate represents what Australia’s population will be like in 2042. In 2042 an estimated 25 per cent of people living in Australia will be over 65. Yet in 2005 in Richmond 25 per cent of people are already aged over 65. We are a microcosm of what Australia will look like in years to come. The challenges of an ageing population are also reflected in my electorate—the strain on hospitals and nursing homes, the pressure on public dental care and the need for affordable housing and home care services.

My electorate provides governments with a unique opportunity to look into the future, to see firsthand the challenges that an ageing population will create. I do not believe that the federal government is taking that opportunity. Aged care has been so neglected that the government has failed to keep up with the current level of demand. And things will only get worse as demand increases over the next 40 years. Governments need to rise to the challenge right now. They need to start looking at the problems in electorates like mine today. They need to start looking at those problems right here and now and work to solve them for the future.

Probably the most important area of ageing is health. The fact is that, as we get older, we need to go to the doctor more often. It is also true that the vast majority of elderly people live on fixed incomes. That is why boosting our bulk-billing rate is so vitally important. Many local seniors tell me that sometimes they simply cannot afford to go to the doctor.

Bulk-billing figures for the North Coast are still far too low. In Richmond, our bulk-billing rate is 69.5 per cent. This is well below the New South Wales average of 78.1 per cent. Of course, this bears no comparison to the Prime Minister’s seat of Bennelong in Sydney, which enjoys an above-average 78.4 per cent bulk-billing rate. People I speak to in Richmond tell me that it is nearly impossible to find a doctor who bulk-bills, yet there obviously are many bulk-billing doctors all over the Prime Minister’s electorate.

The government simply is not putting resources where they are needed to meet the challenges of our ageing population. Our elderly on the North Coast deserve the best and most affordable medical care available. Addressing the low bulk-billing rate on the north coast should be a top priority of this government. I am always fighting to make sure that it is addressed. Elderly people on fixed incomes should be able to access free medical care when they need it. It is as simple and straightforward as that.

The lack of bulk-billing doctors has forced many elderly people into the emergency department of our hospital. It is just not good enough that our elderly are forced to wait in hospital emergency departments because they cannot afford to see a doctor. The reality is that Tweed Hospital in my electorate has the busiest emergency department outside Sydney.

To cut waiting times and take pressure off our local emergency department, I propose an after-hours GP clinic for Tweed Heads. I am very pleased to learn that the government has taken my suggestion on board: the department of health recently called for applications for a grant to provide after-hours medical services to local families. But the minister can be sure that I am on the case and I will be fighting to make sure that this clinic is delivered in the very near future.

Governments at all levels need to be innovative and cooperative to cope with the increased pressure on our health system. The health and wellbeing of the elderly people I represent is above politics. Providing adequate and proper health care for our elderly is a matter of common respect and decency. The health of our elderly is not a political football, and it is not an excuse to buck pass from one level of government to another. To meet the ever expanding health needs of an ageing population, all governments need to work together. It is up to the federal government to show some national leadership on this vitally important issue. It needs to take the first step towards solving the problems that are going to be created by our ever-ageing population.

One of the first steps is to get elderly people off nursing home waiting lists. My local hospitals are brimming over with elderly people who are too frail to stay at home but cannot get into a nursing home. Although I realise this is a very complex issue, adequate investment and new ideas would be a good start to address this problem. The government has grown stale and complacent and nowhere is this attitude clearer than in the area of aged care. I am always surprised to hear the Minister for Ageing talk about the levels of investment the government is making in this area. Clearly it is spending its money in the wrong places, because we certainly are not seeing too much of it in Richmond. I would have thought it would be obvious that the area with the most need would get the most funds, but it has certainly not been the case in aged care.

You only need to look at the number of community aged care packages and extended aged care at home packages that have been allocated to the North Coast of New South Wales. Despite having one of the largest populations of elderly people in the country, and despite a six- to seven- month waiting list for these packages—

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 12.12 p.m. to 12.24 p.m.

Mrs ELLIOT —In talking about home care, CAPS and EACH packages, I must say that in Richmond there is at least a six- to seven-month waiting list. Of the EACH and CAPS packages that were allocated recently, only 35 went to the North Coast, from Grafton to the border—a huge area. These packages provide vital home care to elderly people who want to retain their independence and remain in their own homes. They allow elderly people to be cared for in their homes and not in nursing homes. This is an investment in options other than nursing home care. Like home care, these packages will reduce waiting lists and ease the pressure on the aged care system.

I have met with several providers of home care who tell me that they are now forced to care for some elderly without funding from the government. They do it because they desperately want to provide these services to local elderly persons, but it is becoming unaffordable and impractical. I have also met with many volunteer groups who visit elderly persons in their homes to provide friendship and just someone to have a chat with. These people often end up taking on the role that home care should be taking on. They are often doing a lot of chores around the house. This is happening time and again.

In response to the problems facing my electorate that I have spoken about today, I will be holding a local aged care summit. This summit will involve aged care providers, the elderly and health professionals from right across the Richmond electorate. The aim of this summit is to look at solutions to the challenges the local ageing population faces. I will be presenting our conclusions to the parliament when it resumes in May.

Social issues are often ignored in discussions about aged care. Older people are definitely at risk of isolation, often leading to depression and the associated health complications. Recent estimates suggest that at least 10 per cent of people aged over 65 are socially isolated and a further 12 per cent are at risk of isolation. I have spoken about this issue in this place before and I know that the member for Ballarat has done a great deal of work in this area. My electorate of Richmond attracts many older Australians from all around the country who move there to retire. Often when they move there they leave behind their network of family and friends. So they are leaving behind their support bases when they retire to the North Coast. Building new networks of friends is so important for elderly people, but it is particularly important in areas like the North Coast. That is why weeks like Seniors Week are so important.

It is indeed timely that this debate is occurring now during Seniors Week. In the Tweed and Byron shire areas there are many fantastic events planned for this week. I was fortunate enough to attend the official opening of the local celebrations at Murwillumbah last Sunday. Seniors Week gives local seniors a chance to form new friendships and networks. To encourage that and to become part of that new network, I have set up a seniors community information register. This register will provide local seniors with information on their entitlements and benefits, as well as important health and safety information. It is a new initiative that I am very happy to provide to local seniors as their local MP.

Seniors Week is also a time when we recognise the contribution that seniors have made to our community. One group that is often overlooked is grandparents. Grandparents make an important mark on the lives of our children. I know that in my electorate there are many that shoulder the responsibility for raising children on their own. Often grandparents, having raised their own children, are now bringing up their children’s children. As we know, raising kids is a mammoth task in itself but to do it twice, and later in life, indeed takes a special kind of person. Surely grandparents who take on these responsibilities should be given adequate support. At the moment, support from the government is lacking. Not only do these grandparents not get adequate financial support; they often strike bureaucratic interference when they are trying to do the right thing by their grandchildren. With an ageing population, I would suggest that inflexible working environments and the shortage of child care also create problems. Grandparents are going to become increasingly central to the growing lives of our children, and I would hope that the government looks at steps to recognise the positive influence that grandparents have in this area and provides them with the financial and structural support that they do indeed need.

It is good to see that the government has taken a step towards meeting the challenges of an ageing population. My hope is that it actively makes good decisions and invests in providing for the effects that this trend will indeed have. Governments at all levels need to invest in health and ageing facilities where they are most needed. That specifically includes areas like Richmond. Elderly Australians deserve the best care that governments can provide. I will continue to raise this issue as often as possible until the government starts providing for elderly Australians.