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Advocacy group calls for private phones for every aged care resident

Advocacy Tasmania is calling on the federal government and the aged care sector to give every aged care resident their own private phone.

As COVID-19 has forced homes across the country into lockdown, Advocacy Tasmania CEO Leanne Groombridge says that the move is vital to protect residents from poor treatment and give them some independence.

“Can you imagine you or I, or my children, not having access to a phone? We actually remove our children’s phones as a form of punishment. Yet for older people in aged care, it’s not even a basic,” Groombridge says.

“The main problem is that access to a phone is considered, in aged care, as an additional extra that you’ve got to pay for. Now, it’s lumped in with similar additional extras that you pay for, such as having Foxtel connected or having a glass of wine with your meal. This has to be an essential service that is provided to older people. It is so essential.”

Groombridge says that many facilities only offer the use of communal phones and this can often be difficult for residents to use as staff may not have time to help. Residents may also be afraid to ask to use a phone, hoping not to burden staff or put off by the lack of privacy when using a communal phone.

Individual phones also make sense as a from of infection control, Groombridge says, as a home full of residents using the same phones could be unhygienic – also deterring residents from using them.

Seventy-six-year-old Betty recently moved into residential care, separating her from Tom, her husband of 56 years. Betty has struggled with the separation but avoids asking to use the phone to call Tom as staff have told her they often don’t have time to do all of their daily tasks and provide care to all the residents.

“We’re a team, well … always have been until now, and we’ve lasted this long because we talk about everything,” Betty says.

Betty’s advocate Kate says the lack of contact is hard for Tom as well, and the pair don’t have the money to pay extra for a phone.

“Tom told me he too was incredibly lonely and felt so bad that his wife had to go into care as he could no longer cope even with the available community supports, and he missed her terribly. They both received the aged pension and there was no money left from Betty’s pension for extras once all the care fees had been paid. He said he was also struggling making ends meet on the pension especially now Betty’s pension all went on her care,” she says.

“Sadly, I can’t report a good outcome for Betty and Tom. They didn’t have money for a phone and now they’re suffering. The lack of in-room phones has such a huge impact on the frail and vulnerable in care homes and their loved ones and it just shouldn’t be like this.”

Jim Paterson is part of the Advocacy Tasmania team that – in pre-COVID times – made quarterly visits to each aged care home on the island. He says that people in residential aged care find it hard to report abuse or wrongdoing if they can’t access a phone.

“This has been an issue in residential aged care for many years and it’s been common knowledge that it’s not the home’s responsibility to provide a phone to a resident. It’s been clearly articulated in legislation,” Paterson says.

“We have always found it challenging and difficult when people cannot afford a phone, and this is something as advocates, we’ve had to work with for a long time.”

Paterson says that even when a resident can get a call to an advocate, without private phone access it can be difficult for an advocate to reach that resident to provide help. He recently had this issue with aged care resident Joe, who has been depressed and lonely throughout the COVID-19 lockdowns.

“It was really hard to reach Joe. I phoned the aged care home and the receptionist asked who I was. We work at the direction of our clients and I didn’t have Joe’s permission to tell anyone about his business, so I just said that Joe had asked me to call him and I asked if I could be put through.

“The receptionist said that it was surprising that I was calling Joe as he ‘didn’t ever get calls’ and she asked again if it was Joe that I wanted and if he was expecting my call. I replied, yes, to both questions. I was then put through to a carer who wasn’t able to put me through to Joe at that time as she was too busy, and I was asked to call back. After two more calls to Joe that day, I finally reached him.

“The phone that the carer handed to him wouldn’t work in his room as there was no reception that far away from the portable phone’s base, so the call had to be taken in a communal area. Joe said he couldn’t talk because everyone could hear. I asked if he could go somewhere more private, but he said the carer had told him that the phone wouldn’t work anywhere else. Joe, said he didn’t want people knowing his business so not to worry, he’d be fine with things as they were. I told Joe I could phone again the next day and I would see if we could get more privacy, and he agreed.

“After a lot of mucking around we managed to have a longer chat and Joe told me he felt his situation was hopeless.”

Groombridge believes that the government and providers can afford the cost of adding free phones to resident rooms and that it would free up staff members, allowing them to spend more time caring for residents during a time when lockdowns have created higher workloads.

 “We estimate around 2,000 older Tasmanians don’t have access to an in-room phone,” she says.

“Aged care facilities aren’t equipped, the staffing ratios are obviously pretty poor. You haven’t got a lot of people on reception to field calls. So, it’s just been a bit of a disaster. It’s not been good, and no wonder people don’t feel that they matter.

“One aged care facility where there was a COVID diagnosis received 2,000 calls from concerned people, family members, friends, et cetera, on day one of a COVID diagnosis.

“Now, this is the problem. COVID has just magnified and amplified this basic problem. It’s a basic right to be able to communicate with your loved ones, surely, let alone to be able to get access to services like the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission or organisations like ours,” Groombridge says.

Advocacy Tasmania also believes that this simple addition could prevent some of the examples of abuse uncovered throughout the royal commission. And Groombridge is worried for residents who have been locked down, confined to their bedrooms with no interaction with the outside world.

“The evidence to date is that older people have suffered, and continue to suffer, and have issues that aren’t being resolved. With COVID in place and with the restrictions, it absolutely will follow that older people are more vulnerable in those circumstances.”

“We’re incredibly concerned that older people don’t have a voice, and they’re going to be so easily forgotten. It’s a devastating time for so many, but for older people across Australia, to be sitting there 24/7, watching the news, and seeing what is happening to older people across Australia, in Victoria, what’s happening in Sydney, it’s terrifying, and they are afraid. They really are afraid.”

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