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Royal commission: community has its say at first-of-its-kind forum

More than 300 people attended the Aged Care Royal Commission’s community forum at the sprawling Bankstown Sports Club in Sydney on Friday 1 March.

Commissioner Lynelle Briggs attended the event, which she said was the first of its kind held for any Royal Commission.

Briggs cut a kind and jovial figure and was at pains to put the speakers in attendance at ease, acknowledging that royal commissions can be “scary” and that these forums were designed to be a more casual environment for attendees.

credit: Kelly Barnes, AAP

Briggs told the audience that it would “be easy” for the commission “to just hear from providers”, but she wants to hear from “you” and all submissions from the day will be read.

Each speaker was given four minutes to give a statement to the forum and it started at breakneck pace.

The first speaker, an RN and carer, shocked the room with stories of poor wound care leading to fist sized bed sores and holes in patients. She spoke passionately, calling bed sores a form of torture and telling Briggs that any bed sores should be investigated as a rule.

Another speaker, a dementia advocate and COTA volunteer, railed against the way dementia care is administered.

She told the forum that in some areas there is only one dementia officer to an electorate, sometimes up to 8000 people. The charismatic 90-year-old woman also spoke of the inadequacy of the current home care packages, adding that they can cause those with dementia to feel like they have lost control.

The crowd groaned when she recalled an incident where a woman was called to be told her husband’s level 4 package was ready after an 18-month wait, the only problem being that her husband had died 15 months ago.

Another woman told the forum of the financial hardship she has faced since her mother was diagnosed with dementia in 2013.

She had to give up her career to become her mother’s carer and mandatory council fire rules forced her to make upgrades to her house and get a massive mortgage in the process.

Recalling her huge credit card debt, being threatened with default on her mortgage and battles with the bureaucracy of home care packages, she was nearly in tears. She finished by imploring the various finance ministers of the nation to attend the royal commission so that they can understand the financial impact of being a carer.

Two deaf women spoke to the forum through an Auslan interpreter. They stressed that not enough was being done for the deaf, and there are currently no provisions for Auslan services in aged care.

This point was rammed home when they told the attendees that they had in fact brought their own interpreter, as there was none to be provided by the forum.

On a rare positive note, one gentleman spoke glowingly about his experience with a local provider. He was a carer for an elderly neighbour, who now resides in Bankstown city aged care in Yallambee and he said they were nearly perfect.

The afternoon was punctuated by gasps at the horror stories some children of aged care residents brought forward and applause at the bravery of the carers and nurses who came forward to hold their industry to account.

The atmosphere in the room was tense towards the end of the afternoon and the penultimate speaker, who spoke with no notes, was visibly emotional.

He told the forum of the encounter with the heads of an aged care provider on the day they told him his mother had been abused. They coldly told him to get over it and move on. To applause, he told Briggs that the providers cannot fix this, but – pointing to the crowd – he said the people behind him could.

The afternoon hit all the notes of the song we have been hearing for a while now. The need for staff ratios was a recurring theme. Better training, better food and mandatory air-conditioning. The “profit-driven” model of providers was a concern, while expensive bonds for aged care places was another issue.

The last speaker finished to loud whoops and applause, the tension lifted, the crowd seemed pleased that they had been heard.

“What a success” Briggs said in her closing remarks. She summed up many of the arguments from the speakers and, as was evidenced from her furious note taking throughout, she took to heart many of the issues.

The forum was so important she said, as some of the people who spoke today, would not have usually had the chance to speak before a commission. And paraphrasing one of the speakers, she told the forum that at present, the sector is too focused on money and funding and not enough on “love and support”.

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