Industry In Crisis: Australia's Elderly Deserve Better

Under staffing, poor food, over use of medication and restricted facilities are just the tip of the iceberg.

A holocaust survivor who came to Australia in the 1950s, Neda Borenstien worked throughout her life while managing MS.

As she grew older she was moved to Charlesbrook Nursing Home where she lived for 10 years.

After Neda complained to her son that she was being neglected, he installed a secret camera in her room. What he found was lack of care, where is mother was left alone is a dark room for hours before she was helped out of bed in the mornings.

To get the attention she needed, Neda would sing at the top of her voice, but was often told to keep quiet.

Over the last five months the ABC was contacted by over 1,000 current and former aged care workers who say the $22 billion industry needs an overhaul and that Australia's elderly people deserve to be treated better.

The issues within the aged care industry are abundant and include under staffing, poor food, over-use of medication and restricted facilities.

READ MORE: Left In Soiled Clothes: Family Shocked At Aged Care Home Care

More Staff Will Lead To Better Care

One of the issues workers identified was that there are no minimum staffing levels across Australia's nursing homes.

"I just think that homes need to get more staffing -- just way more. Like, wouldn't it be great if every home was overstaffed rather than understaffed? That would be the first thing," personal assistant Rebecca De Hann told Four Corners. 

"And then the quality of this staff -- you need people that are educated in a way so that they know how to deal personally with the residents, and people that have a love of the job. Workers are the biggest cost in aged care."

Federal Minister Aged Care Ken Wyatt said the reason the government hasn't issued minimum levels is because each facility should assess the staff to resident ratio themselves.

Since Wyatt made these comments, Prime Minister Scott Morrison called a Royal Commission into aged care.

Neglect is a major issue in aged care homes. Image: Getty Images.
Over-Use Of Antipsychotic Medication Widespread

Perhaps one of the most alarming issues staff claim, is the excessive use of medication to make people with dementia easier to manage. More than half of residents in Australian aged care facilities have dementia and a recent national study found that nearly two thirds of aged care residents were being given psychiatric drugs.

Four Corners reported that these were often used in small doses to treat agitation and aggressiveness, regardless of how effective these drugs might be or how they might effect individual residents.

Pamela Passlow moved to Kilpatrick Court in Newcastle NSW after she was diagnosed with dementia. During her time there she was prescribed a number of antipsychtoic and sedative drugs which resulted in her personality changing and her behaviour fluctuating.

"It did change her personality. I... To us, we were very confused. Was it medication? Was it delirium? What was going on? Was she...pain? She was lying in a bed curled up most of the time, sleepy or agitated," Passlow's daughter Deanne Morris said.

Dr. Juanita Westbury is a researcher and lecturer in dementia care and she is wary of the overuse of antipsychotic drugs.

Drugs should be used as a last resort to managing dementia patients. Image: Getty Images.

"They should only be used as a last resort, but I think more often, and from, you know, the usage rates that we're seeing, they're really reaching for them first," Westbury said.

READ MORE: Abuse Outrage Leads To Royal Commission Into Aged Care

Food And Care Cut To Save Money

The Four Corners report also revealed the poor quality of both food and care in aged cared facilities.

Facility Manager and Clinical Consultant Tony Northcote said that both the quality of food, facilitates and staff levels are often downgraded to cut costs. A recent study of nursing homes shows that aged care facilities spend an average of $6 a day on food for each resident.

Current and former staff of aged care facilities also told the ABC that the use of continence pads was restricted to cost-cut.

"I had to many times ask an RN [registered nurse] on night shift whether I could have access to the storeroom to grab maybe one or two to get me through the night. Quite often than not, I was told 'no,'" personal care assistant Troy Mann told Four Corners.

But the common theme evident from each of these workers?

Australia's elderly deserve better.

"They're all someone's mum, someone's dad, someone's brother, someone's sister. They were all young once. And ...they're just forgotten," Northcote said.

Contact Siobhan at skenna@networkten.com.au