Earle Haven nursing home scandal shows again why we need not-for-profit care

The Earle Haven Nursing Home disaster shows the ruthlessness of for-profit care.

The Earle Haven Retirement Village at Nerang on the Gold Coast closed suddenly on July 11, leaving scores of very vulnerable residents in limbo. Help Street, which runs the centre, said it had “no choice” after the staff were allegedly unpaid due to a dispute with People Care, the overarching aged care provider.

Help Street had asked for more money to run the nursing home, but People Care wanted to end the contract. Earl Haven staff had to call 000, asking for help. More than 32 paramedics, nurses, doctors and health staff had to immediately organise transfers and accommodation for more than 70 residents, many of whom were suffering dementia.

The operation was akin to a natural disaster. Apart from staff not having been paid, medical records had been removed and items of value had been taken. Health staff had to reconstruct medical histories and medical requirements to fulfil residents’ needs.

The crisis at Earl Haven is just one example of the many problems with the private, for profit aged care and care industries.

When the profit motive is involved, it sets up an inherent contradiction between cutting costs to make more money and carrying out the service. Mostly, these contradictions are not so public.

A major cost in aged care is the staff — the less you have the more profit that can be made. Likewise the less you pay staff, and the fewer conditions they have, the lower the costs.

The average wage of an aged care worker is just $21– 22 an hour. These low wages and average conditions, combined with a high patient-to-staff ratio, leads to burnout and a high turnover of staff.

It also leads to neglect: patients can be left in soiled clothes for hours, not because staff do not care but because of understaffing when other matters become a priority.

Equipment is also often not maintained due to it being a cost. An aged care worker told me that while there was a hoist for each unit in the facility he worked at, only one out of four hoists was in working order. This meant that the hoist had to be shared, eating into valuable staff time.

A particularly disgusting example of cost saving is the use of leftover food that is pureed to be given to those with swallowing difficulties. Incontinence pads are even rationed, with some having to beg for extras. 

Savings are also made by not training staff adequately for the myriad of medical and behavioural situations.

Often free work is done, to get the job done and give the care needed. The ABC’s Lateline program on July 12 summed up the failures in many facilities: “Staff say they do not get time to properly feed, hydrate or toilette residents, that broken bones and infections go undiagnosed and there are frequent medication mistakes.”

With no mandatory staff-to-patient ratio, some aged care workers have to look after 20 or 30 high-care residents in a shift. Elderly people are often dragged out of their beds early, with privacy ignored, so that staff can get through all their work.

There are now less medically qualified staff in nursing homes: 70% of staff are now low-paid, low-skilled workers. Many are asked to perform tasks beyond their limited training.

The job is both physically and mentally demanding, and staff can crack under the pressure, resulting in forms of abuse, particularly when dealing with dementia patients.

In addition, the checks and balances (internal and external) needed to protect the elderly are another cost that is often ignored.

Staff are often afraid to speak out because those that do are often shown the door. Speaking out is not good for business.

For elderly people to be cared for in the way society expects, two things need to happen.

First, the profit motive needs to be removed. Aged care, just like other care institutions need to be publicly run and well-funded.

Secondly, the sector needs to be unionised and union members should be taking the sorts of action, including strike action, needed to improve their poor pay and conditions.

[Michael McDonald is a community services worker and member of the Socialist Alliance.]

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