“There’s just so many different intersecting touchpoints… it’s just a lovely sense of community,” beams Deborah Key, chief executive of Bankstown City Aged Care. Key speaks in soft, quick bursts; it’s almost as if she can’t hold in her pride at the work being done here.
I am here to visit BCAC and their wellness centre, developed in consultation with Western Sydney University (WSU) with state-of-the-art equipment and opened in late 2017. I am barely through the door before I am hurried on to one of the smart exercise machines.
I push the weights on the leg press slowly, acutely aware of how unfit I am, as Key and resident exercise physiologist Ben smile either side of me, and the machine counts reps, ups the weight and collects all of the data as I do so.
All of the pneumatic equipment BCAC uses was sourced from a Company based in Finland, HUR, who specialise in machines for active ageing and rehabilitation. The use of air, instead of weights, allows for maximum strength training or minimum weights, all with lower risk of injury.
In the room to my right, is a group of home care recipients having a yarn over a cup of tea as they wait for the chair yoga class.
They are picked up and driven here once a week for some socialising and fitness classes, but the centre is open Monday to Friday for the aged care residents, home care recipients and retirement residents and the community at large.
This centre is about mental and social wellness as well as the physical, Key tells me.
“We wanted evidence based, quality service,” Key said, “there is no financial benefit for us, it’s about quality of life”.
Ben Gonano, a former WSU student, has worked in fitness for years at various commercial gyms but he doesn’t have the typical gym instructor quality about him. He is calm, well-spoken and listens attentively when you speak to him.
He liked the commercial gym world, but here it is different he says. Here he sees the “huge differences” he can make to a person’s quality of life.
He tells me how he was approached by his former lecturer, Simon Green of WSU, to take on the task of setting up this facility, and he lists other proud moments from his time here, such as the referrals he now gets from a local surgeon whose waiting list is bulging.
The doctor told Ben that by referring clients to the wellness centre and improving their fitness his patients have been able to avoid surgery. Ben tells me this as he puts me through my paces on the balance machine.
This machine is another big part of the wellness centre. Used to improve one’s balance and avoid falls, Ben has also used it to treat people with MS and has had significant results. The balance training often involves showing video games on the screen in front of the user, and Key delights in recalling the competition and rivalries this has created among some of BCAC’s nearby retirement community.
Simon Green’s involvement started with an email from Key and they immediately shared a vision for what the wellness centre would be.
“What was particularly important was Deborah’s philosophy: the way that she went about things, and the fact that I could tune right into that and see that well basically, you have a really good woman here, who is trying to achieve really good things in a kind of difficult work space,” Green told Aged Care Insite.
Green sees the relationship as a mutually beneficial one. He hopes that as the wellness centre improves the lives of residents it can also yield research for the university,
“As a research organisation, we have a lot to learn from an aged care centre in terms of the way that they do things, and the problems that they face at the coalface. And I also think we have a responsibility to help train and educate people that work within Bankstown City Age Care to be a little bit more research-aware I guess.”
Green also wants the relationship to breed the next generation of aged care workers.
“When the Wellness Centre was opened in late 2017, in about the same month we had the first of our students placed there; two students from our program in the third year were placed at BCAC,” he said.
This was followed by seven students in 2018 and to date around 15 students have completed their 140-hour placements at BCAC.
“We have a very important role to play and the graduates will become part of the workforce of the future. And the thing is, if you do this properly, there’s no doubt that you will improve aged care,” he said.
And like most people I have encountered so far, Green cites Key as the driving force behind BCAC’s successes.
“We’ve had this tremendous kind of interaction with BCAC, and I think probably the critical thing to the success there has really been Deborah.
“And I think fundamentally, Deborah is driven by establishing an aged care centre that’s very strongly focused on wellness,” he said.
Fresh and tranquil
I walk with Key throughout the rest of BCAC’s facilities and it is everything an outsider would imagine an aged care facility should be.
Clean, fresh and tranquil, we walk through the newly renovated dementia wing, equipped with dementia friendly design evident in the gardens with activity rooms here and there along the way.
There are the 1950s style lounge rooms, the old-style laundry rooms, and the large comfortable meeting rooms designed with family gatherings in mind, all made so that living well is the norm for residents.
We bump into Bruce who is sitting next to his napping wife – almost, it seems, taking a nap himself. He springs to life when he notices Key, he embraces her and shakes my hand vigorously as he tells me that he loves Key and this place.
Key later tells me that Bruce – who lives in the nearby retirement village and pops up every day to see his wife in the aged care facility – volunteers, along with other men, in the new ‘men’s shed’ BCAC have built in the dementia facility.
We walk in on a joint kids and residents singing session in the dementia respite centre, every face looking happy as they clap and nod and sing.
All of this is part of the community feel Key tells me. The word community comes up a lot throughout the day.
The carer’s view
Doug Heard also has a lot of good things to say about BCAC. He is the reason for my visit.
In amongst a sea of negative aged care stories crashing into my inbox, I heard about this aged care facility that is, in Doug’s words, not completely perfect, “no place is”, but it’s “as close as you can get”.
Doug came into contact with BCAC when both his parents couldn’t look after themselves and they needed some home care assistance, and later with his neighbour Irene – for whom he eventually acted as carer.
“They were excellent in providing home-based service, excellent, very polite, very caring,” he told me over a cup of tea.
During his career Doug worked for the department of housing. After saving up 2,500-odd leave hours (“I come from the old school where you don’t take sickies unless you’re sick,” he tells me), and as his parents aged, he took a year off work to look after them.
“You learn a lot,” he says, “when you are looking after people with dementia.”
He recounts times in that year when he would throw away food in his parents bins only to find his mother had fished it out again.
Or the time when he stopped in his car across the road from his dad – who had wandered off – only to see his father march across the road towards him without looking, “so the next time, I would drive up the road, drive past him and pull up on the same side of the road!”
Eventually, after his father passed away, his mother went to BCAC on a short two-week respite, which “with a little bit of reluctance” led to her staying full-time and she lived there for 12 years until her passing aged 92.
Doug praises the attentive and consultative nature of staff. On the rare occasion when he has had a complaint, he says things have been taken care of quickly and without fuss, which made dealing with placing his mum in a home all the easier.
Doug even donated $25,000 of a $50,000 raffle winning he picked up at nearby Revesby Workers Club, which then went to fund some entertainment improvements at the Yallambe home. (The rest of the money went on a cruise for he and his wife. “I’ve only been on 22! And someone’s gotta do it!” he says.)
Shortly after his mother’s passing, Doug and wife Karen started to care for Irene who has dementia, looking after her finances, cooking, cleaning and taking her on holiday, until she too had to move to Yallambe where she has been for the past two years.
I am enjoying talking with Doug, he is very open and chatty, so I feel I can ask him a couple of sensitive questions.
After all of the time spent caring for his parents, what motivates him to look after his neighbour Irene?
“Well she had no one,” he said.
“She had no children, and she was in a house on her own.”
And were there times when it all got too much?
“I’ve had some seriously tough days with cancer,” he tells me.
Doug is on his fourth cancer episode, first being diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2008. He lists off the treatments he has had over the years – including needles to the back and being prescribed thalidomide (causing him to lose feeling in his fingers and feet) – and I’m quiet, shaking my head now and then in disbelief.
“And I’ve sat at home, and I’ve felt like driving to the gap and jumping.
“Especially when I got the second cancer, this big one,” he says as he points to his mouth and jaw, which looks swollen and causes him to slur ever so slightly, and to drink his tea through a straw.
“I had a cricket ball growing out of my mouth. The operation was 15-and-a-half hours.”
This topic is interrupted by a quick detour into a conversation about how much he loves paperwork, and how he drops off a bottle of port every year to the doctor who saved his life.
“To cut a long story short,” he says as he starts another part of his story as a carer with a slight diversion to some other part of his life. He often starts a sentence this way, but his stories are rarely short.
He enjoys talking to people and I can see the qualities that make him a good carer in our conversation.
As I am thinking back on Doug, trying to describe him, the word ‘character’ keeps coming to mind. Doug is a character in the best sense of the word. He speech is peppered with rhyming slang, like “tray bits” (I’ll let you figure that one out), and light-hearted dad jokes.
Another word that comes to mind is community.
Doug has always been involved in the community, whether it be coaching every one of his son’s soccer teams (he has five), or being the president of a local school P&C, or being a member of the Revesby Workers Club charity committee.
“I’m very community minded,” Doug agrees after I suggest this a few times.
“If anyone needs a hand to do something, I’ll give you a hand.
“It gives you something to do.”
And that day at the Royal Commission community forum which he attended for something to do, he felt compelled to tell the community about BCAC.
Key knocks on the door to let myself and Doug know that someone has booked the room we are in, and she and Doug banter back and forth a little – “I talk too much,” he says, “no” she feigns sarcastically. “I’m telling him the bad stuff,” he jokes back.
I finish my day at BCAC by asking Doug, as he drinks his tea thirstily through his straw, if he worries about one day going into residential aged care himself.
And if I could cut a long story short, no, was his reply.Do you have an idea for a story?
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