All of us know aged care is in crisis. The problem is we don’t really care.
Harsh? Perhaps. But it’s an easily testable proposition. So that’s what Catholic Health Australia did during last month’s Eden-Monaro by-election.
When we polled voters in the bellwether federal electorate we found 84 per cent believed “the aged care system is in crisis”. We then asked these same voters to consider seven issues and rank them in terms of importance. Aged care came a dismal last. Less than 4 per cent of respondents raised aged care as an issue driving their vote. In the 18-34 age group not one person nominated investing in aged care as having an impact on their vote.
I’ve been involved in state and federal political campaigns for years and I have little doubt the major parties will have seen similar research. So is it really any wonder that aged care has been left to languish in the political desert?
We can howl at our politicians for allowing aged care to descend into crisis. But they’ve been responding to us.
Our decision-makers know that 60 per cent of residential aged care homes are running at a loss and on the verge of closure.
They know workers in aged care are paid significantly less than their counterparts in the health and community sectors, despite these industries hardly enjoying a reputation as gold mines.
They know the Royal Commission into Aged Care has described our system as a “sad and shocking system that diminishes Australia as a nation”.
But they also know that when you really boil it down, no election has ever turned on aged care. Swing voters in swing seats like Eden-Monaro recognise the crisis. But it doesn’t influence their vote.
Since I started engaging with aged care last year I’ve spoken to any number of leaders in the sector, who are bemused by how little attention governments seem to pay to their submissions. They’ve asked me if they needed better evidence. I’ve suggested that’s not the issue.
Every intergenerational report since 2002 has plainly shown the need for increased funding. The reason government doesn’t provide it is not they’re unconvinced. It’s that they know their neglect won’t be punished by the electorate.
That’s not to say they’re heartless monsters who don’t feel for seniors in substandard care. It’s just a reflection of how our modern democracy works.
So why don’t voters put pressure on governments to act?
Partly the answer has to be cultural. We’re all ageist to some degree, even if we don’t recognise it. Ever complimented someone by saying how young they look? Did you consider the converse?
People I talk to in their 70s who tell me the worst thing about getting older is becoming invisible. People don’t look you in the eye or serve you when you walk into a café. In a society in which youth is revered, the presence of the aged makes us feel uncomfortable.
But difficult though the situation is, it doesn’t mean we have to accept aged care calcifying as a pariah issue.
Covid has been a wake-up call. And those of us who care about aged care can also take considerable inspiration from the ‘Every Australian Counts’ campaign that gave rise to the NDIS.
The challenges faced by disabled Australians was hardly a hot button political issue 10 years ago. But ‘Every Australian Counts’ helped build the case and pave the way for billions of dollars of public funds to flow to a group of vulnerable Australians who had previously been overlooked.
The aged care sector needs its ‘Every Australian Counts’ campaign.
During the Eden Monaro by-election, Catholic Health Australia ran a little pilot, a ‘Fight for Better Aged Care’ campaign in both Merimbula and Bega.
Despite only three weeks of exposure and a tightly constrained budget, one in four residents in Merimbula and one in five residents in Bega, noticed the messaging. Among those who had been exposed to the campaign, the strongly held conviction that the government should prioritise fixing the aged care system, bumped up from 40 per cent to 60 per cent.
This shows there is political hope. The right public awareness campaign can move hearts and minds.
Political scientists talk about ‘Overton windows’, the range of policies politically acceptable to the population at a given moment in time. As coronavirus continues to menace our aged care sector, it’s likely the window is shifting.
Even as the pandemic-induced recession takes hold, we still live in one of the very wealthiest societies the world has ever known. With more time, a larger budget, and commitment from the sector I believe we can campaign to build the public support necessary to start treating our elders with the respect they deserve.
Pat Garcia is CEO of Catholic Health Australia.Do you have an idea for a story?
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