“I’m sure if I had taken Bob to the Royal Adelaide Hospital in the state he was in, I would have been reported to the police.”
That’s how Oakden whistleblower Barbara Spriggs recounted the injuries her late husband sustained at the infamous facility as she gave her witness testimony to the aged care royal commission.
Spriggs was the first witness to be called at the commission in Adelaide on Monday, and at times she became emotional as she recalled the pain and suffering her late husband Robert “Bob” Spriggs went through and the subsequent anguish felt by her and her children.
Bob was 66 years old when he died in July 2016, after a battle with many illnesses including Parkinson’s disease. Bob had two short stays at the Oakden facility in South Australia, one in January of 2016 and another in February of the same year, which according to Barbara Spriggs’ testimony, caused Bob’s health to decline dramatically.
Before Spriggs was brought up to testify, counsel assisting Peter Gray started proceedings, and as he did so, there was a brief moment where the room went dark. Light again appeared, perhaps foreshadowing the revelations soon to come.
In his slow, measured manner, Gray set out how the next two weeks will run, saying that these initial hearings will mainly provide context and background to the industry and he does not expect the commissioners to rule on them.
He told the commission that some of the 800 public submissions received so far have been harrowing, and that the commission is grateful for the bravery of those supplicants. He told those in attendance that allegations against specific providers or individuals are for another time.
Gray said that the commission will hear the concerns of the bodies advocating for the aged, and nursing and medical professionals, as well as demographic information in relation to the industry’s sustainability.
Providers slow to respond
From Gray’s opening, we also learnt that the Department of Health has forwarded any submissions they received when the commission was first announced – with some previously concerned these may be lost or not considered.
We also learned that as of now only 900 of the 2000 registered providers, and only 79 of the top 100, have responded to the commission with details of any instances of substandard care – a fact that will not be looked kindly upon by the commissioners.
“We will follow up the providers 35 who have not responded to the request to ensure it has been received and has been receiving proper attention. As commissioner Briggs noted previously, providers who do not engage with our requests draw attention to themselves and to their practices. They will be subject to careful scrutiny,” he said.
Spriggs was eventually called to give testimony, jointly with her son Clive. She used her time not to dwell on her family’s story, she told the commission, but to encourage others to come forward.
Speaking is not easy, she cautioned, but “speaking out lifted the lid” on the abuse being committed.
Spriggs spent the most of her testimony outlining her views on the changes that need to occur in the sector. These include greater accountability, improved staffing – training of, salaries for and ratios – a database for staff that commit abuse or who have complaints against them, CCTV in common areas, and better end-of-life plans.
View from the peaks
COTA Australia chief executive Ian Yates spoke for most of the remainder of the day, covering topics ranging from over-medication, the difficulties regulators face catching misdeeds in facilities, to aged care funding and future improvements.
In his witness statement, Yates told counsel assisting Gray that when it comes to funding aged care properly, we really don’t know what is adequate, laying the blame at the feet of successive governments.
“We don’t really know whether… the total amount that providers are receiving is adequate,” he said.
“And, in that context, what proportion should be being paid for by the government, the taxpayer, which is, in the end, a subsidy to our care and in many cases to our accommodation, and what should be paid by individuals who have capacity to pay? And, at the moment, we do not have a coherent policy about that”.
Using the home care packages levels 1 to 4 system as an example, Yates said that the financial means testing does not even out across the country, telling the commission that we need a fairer system that is plain and easy for everyone to understand and would pass “the pub test”.
In his written statement Yates said: “Improving respect for older Australians will be a critical part of any future aged care system.
“COTA Australia notes the lack of a statement of human rights specific to older people in either national and international law, compared to, say, disability or healthcare. The inclusion of stronger human rights protections through means of an international convention on the rights of older people, or an improved human rights framework for older people in Australia, is a worthy starting point of improving respect for older Australians.”
Yates also suggested a single National Plan for Older Australians, which would put in place strategies to eliminate ageism, as a key to future safety in the sector.
Setting the scene
Shortly after the end of the first day’s hearing, Barbara and her son Clive reflected on what was an important moment for them both.
“To be the first one to present and speak, and for us to be able to speak in front is the royal commission and get our point across to them and sort of set the scene, I suppose, for what’s going to happen and where things are going to go,” Clive Spriggs told Aged Care Insite.
Asked whether they thought this was finally the time that change could occur, Barbara Spriggs was confident.
“I think it has to change,” she said. “I don’t think it can any longer be pushed under the carpet. There are too many people now throughout Australia, not just South Australia, who are so aware of these issues that they can’t go unnoticed anymore. Change will happen. It has to happen.”
The first day of the commission will be the last day the Spriggs family attends the royal commission, happy now to allow other stories to be told, and hopefully, for them, time to move on.
“It’s too confronting, too overwhelming,” said Barbara Spriggs. “I think we need to give other people space to do and say what they have to, and I don’t think it’s good for both of our health and wellbeing to be listening to every little detail.”
Care, dignity and respect
Throughout her in depth, well-reasoned testimony, Barbara Spriggs kept returning to Bob, and stumbled only when she recalled her families struggle to be heard and the bruised state she found Bob in when he was hospitalised after receiving ten-times the recommended dose of anti-psychotics, suffering dehydration as well as pneumonia.
“To this day, I don’t know what happened to Bob at Oakden,” she said.
“I wonder about those who hurt Bob and wonder where they are now and if they are employed somewhere else.” This thought hung in the air.
The phrase “care, dignity and respect they deserve” was oft repeated throughout Barbara Spriggs’s testimony and could set the tone for the year to come.
She ended by saying that “my testimony will not save Bob, but I hope and pray” that the royal commission will make sure that “no one else will suffer as my husband suffered”.
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