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An age-old problem

Incontinence is a major reason why people move into residential care, and most aged residents suffer from it – which is why access to workforce training, education and support on the issue is a top priority for the sector. 

No discussion about managing the needs of our ageing population and our aged care sector is complete without giving consideration to the large numbers of older people living with incontinence.

A 2011 Deloitte Access Economics report commissioned by the Continence Foundation of Australia estimated that 71 per cent of Australians living in residential aged care were incontinent, accounting for an annual cost of $1.6 billion.

While these figures will come as no surprise to aged care policy makers, administrators and staff working at the coal face of aged care, it reinforces the Continence Foundation’s commitment to support the aged care sector in managing this often under-reported major national health issue.

Of course, given our ageing population – the number of people aged 85 years and over is predicted to rise from 344,000 in 2007 to 1.7 million in 2056 – the burden of incontinence on the aged care sector is set to become even more pronounced, particularly given its close association with reduced mobility and neurological and medical conditions such as diabetes, stroke and dementia.

Caring for older people in the community for longer is an admirable aim, but as the Deloitte study reported, incontinence is one of the three most critical factors listed in determining a move to residential aged care. So how can we address this growing problem?

Australia is fortunate in having had successive federal governments that have understood the need to focus on aged care – including the creation of a separate aged care portfolio, now a part of social services – and continence care. This was formerly through the National Continence Management Strategy, and more recently the National Continence Program, which highlighted the need for improving awareness of incontinence management among aged care workers by improving access to workforce training, education and support.

This objective is supported by the fact about 25 per cent of nursing staff time is spent dealing directly with the consequences of incontinence, which further affects the cost of healthcare through staff morale, absenteeism and injury associated with an untrained workforce.

Given this, upskilling the workforce should be considered a priority for all aged care organisations. The foundation’s free national education forums for aged care staff are always our most popular events, so we are confident this specialised support is wanted. The opportunity to connect with peers through educational events such as these is also crucial, as much of a staff member’s day is spent tending to the often complex needs of residents within strict time constraints.

Better education helps staff to identify individual client needs, which in turn promotes better outcomes through the implementation of individual treatment and management plans. The benefits of this for both residents and staff members are manifold in terms of physical health, improved quality of life and even financial savings through more efficient use of products and continence aids where necessary.

As such, it is incumbent upon organisations such as the Continence Foundation, federal and state governments, and key stakeholders in the aged care sector to advance educational opportunities to enhance the health and welfare of our ageing nation, as well as the workers in the sector who play such a vital caring role.

Barry Cahill is the chief executive officer of the Continence Foundation of Australia. He worked in senior financial management in the public health sector before joining the Continence Foundation in 2002.

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