Aged Care – what we need- but will we get it?

A challenge facing the recently announced Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety will be to define “quality”.

Everyone has their own idea of what quality of care and quality of life in residential aged care may look like. The Conversation asked readers how they would want a loved one to be cared for in a residential aged care facility. What they said was similar to what surveys around the world have consistently found.

Characteristics that often appear as the basis for good quality of life include living in a home-like rather than an institutionalised environment, social connection and access to the outdoors. Good quality of care tends to focus on providing assistance that is timely and appropriate to individual needs.


 

A bleak view of aged care

A mature judgment to determine good quality requires us to recognise that many people have an instinctive and distressingly bleak view of ageing, disability, dementia and death. Some people express this as death being preferable to living in aged care, as the tweet below shows.

This doesn’t necessarily reflect an objective assessment of the actual care being delivered in residential facilities, but it does speak to the fear of losing independence, autonomy and identity.

In a survey of patients with serious illnesses hospitalised in the US, around 30% of respondents considered life in a nursing home to be a worse fate than death. Bowel and bladder incontinence and being confused all the time were two other states considered worse than death.

Aged care facilities will be the final residence for most before they die. This means the residents’ sense of futility and the notion one is simply waiting to die can and should be addressed.


 

Loose-leaf tea can make someone feel at home. Matt Seymour/Unsplash

Our reason for being is usually expressed through social connections. This a recurring theme for residents who define quality of care as whether or not residents have friendships and are allowed reciprocity with their caregivers.

A systematic review that drew together a number of studies of quality in aged care found residents were most concerned about the lack of individual autonomy and difficulty in forming relationships when in care.

Good staff

The need for positive social connections for residents extends to the relationships between staff and families. Achieving this requires staff with a positive attitude who work to build trust and involve family in their loved one’s care. They must also engage on issues that have meaning to the individuals.

Good staff should be both technically proficient and, perhaps more importantly, good with people.

Idyllic, or the way it should be?

A home-like setting – which may include having a pet and enjoying time in nature, as the Tweet below describes – may seem idyllic. However, more contemporary models of care are moving towards smaller home-like environments that accommodate fewer people and are more like a household than a large institution.

The ability to relate and personalise care to a small group of 10-12 residents is surely easier than catering to 30-60 residents. Some studies in the US have shown residents in such smaller units have an enhanced quality of life that doesn’t compromise clinical care or running costs.


This cluster-style housing still has limitations that need to be addressed. These include selecting residents who are suitable together and catering for the changing clinical and care needs of each individual.

Pets and the outdoors

Research into the value of pets in aged care has largely focused on the benefits to people living with dementia. Introducing domestic animals, typically dogs, has been shown to have positive effects on social behaviours, physical activity and overall quality of life for residents.

Pets improve quality of life for people living with dementia. from shutterstock.com

Similarly, providing accommodation where the physical environment and building promote engagement in a range of indoor and outdoor activities, and allow for both private and community spaces, is associated with a better quality of life.

Good food

Another major determinant of quality of life in residential aged care is the quality of food. This becomes even more important as people age. Providing high-quality food and enriching meal times is more challenging as many diseases such as dementia and stroke affect older people’s dentition and swallowing.

Aged care services need proactive and innovative approaches to overcome these deficits and better promote general health.

A key feature often overlooked is the cultural significance of food. Providing traditional foods to residents strengthens their feeling of belonging and identity, helping them hold on to their cultural roots and enhance their quality of life.

Safety, dignity, respect and choice

While the focus is often on preventing abuse, neglect and restrictive practices in aged care, the absence of these harmful events doesn’t equate to a positive culture. Residents want and have a right to feel safe, valued, respected and able to express and exercise choice. Positive observation of these rights is essential for quality of life.

Clinical and personal care

Time is a factor in aged care, as staff often don’t have enough time to spend with each resident. A recent ABC Four Corners investigation into quality in aged care found personal care assistants had only six minutes to help residents shower and get dressed. No wonder, then, that staff often don’t have the personal time to be able to spend with residents who need life to be a little slower, as the Facebook comment below shows.

Clinical care is another important aspect of quality aged care. A resident cannot enjoy a good quality of life if their often multiple and chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart failure and arthritis are poorly managed by their doctors and nurses.


Residents in aged care are the same as those who live in the community. They are people with the same needs and wants. The only difference is they need the community to give the time, effort and thought to achieve a better life.

(c) The Conversation Australia

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How the Australian residential aged-care system doesn’t care about older people’s emotional needs

All humans have fundamental needs. These are physiological (food, drink, clothing, sleep), safety (emotional security, physical safety, health), love and belonging (friendships, community), esteem (respect, dignity) and self-actualisation (accomplishment, personal development).

For people living in Australia’s residential aged-care facilities, these needs are often not met.

Most residents do not feel they are loved or belong in the facility. Like aged-care resident Neda Borenstein, whose secret camera footage broadcast on ABC’s Four Corners showed her singing the Australian national anthem in bed while she waited more than three hours to be changed. “I’m just a number,” Neda told her carer when she finally returned to help her up.

Less than one-third of residents we interviewed said they were friends with another resident. This means most don’t have the social support associated with friendships. Most residents said they felt socially isolated, which is associated with poor well-being.

A 2016 study of residents’ lived experiences in an aged-care facility found many felt they had little dignity, autonomy or control. Outside of meal and structured activity times, people with dementia spend most of their time stationary, alone and doing very little or nothing.

One study looking at interactions between residents and their carers showed residents were alone 40% of the time they were observed. When staff were present, they mostly did not engage verbally, emotionally or physically with the resident.

Aged-care facilities can also feel psychologically unsafe to residents. Residents with dementia may be locked in secure units or physically restrained, using mechanisms such as bedrails or restraining belts.

Residents sometimes don’t get along. They might argue yell, swear, pinch, hit or push each other. We don’t have good data about how often resident-to-resident verbal and physical aggression happens, but it can result in injury and even death.

The consequences of unmet needs? Residents can react negatively when their needs are not met. They become bored, sad, stressed, cranky, anxious, depressed, agitated, angry and violent.

In people with dementia, we used to call these reactions “behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia” (BPSD). But people with dementia have been pointing out these are normal human responses to neglect, not symptoms of dementia. Almost all (90%) aged-care residents display one or more of these negative reactions.

In many facilities, staff “manage” such reactions with the use of sedating antipsychotic medications. But clinical guidelines recommend looking at the reasons people may be reacting that way and addressing those before medication.

Needless treatments: antipsychotic drugs are rarely effective in ‘calming’ dementia patients

Half of nursing home residents have symptoms of depression, and a third have symptoms of anxiety. More than half of residents have been found in studies to behave in ways that might suggest they no longer wish to live. This includes refusing food or medication, one-third of residents having suicidal thoughts and a small number of nursing home residents actually taking their own lives.

Why does Australian aged care fail to meet fundamental human needs?

We might not be spending enough on aged care to enable providers to meet fundamental human needs. Australia spends about 1% of its GDP on long-term care – less than the OECD average of 1.5%.

Private investment in aged care is growing, as have residential aged care profits, but it’s a difficult industry in which to make money. Insufficient funding translates to insufficient staff and less skilled staff. Our funding system rewards dependency, and there are no funding incentives for providers to improve the psychological webeing of residents, or go beyond that to help them flourish

Friendships are an important part of healthy ageing. from shutterstock.com

People looking for a nursing home don’t have any independently provided information by which to compare quality or performance.

The National Quality Indicator Program – a program for measuring care in residential aged-care facilities that began in 2016 – was meant to provide information for people trying to compare facilities on clinical indicators of care quality.

But participation in the program is voluntary for providers. Neither quality of life nor emotional well-being indicators are included in the suite of quality indicators (even though one has been trialled and found to be suitable). We also don’t know if or when the data might be published.

What is needed?

We need a fundamental shift in community, government, service provider, staff and regulatory expectations of what residential aged care does. Our model of aged care is mainly about clinical care, while neglecting emotional care.

For instance, friendships are a unique social interaction that facilitate healthy ageing, but many residents told us that the social opportunities in their nursing home did not align with their expectations of friendship.

 

We need our model of care to be a model of a home. In a home everyone contributes, has a say in what happens in the home (such as the menu, interior design, routine and functions), is able to invite their friends to their home for a meal, and can leave during the day and come back at night. A home is a safe place, where people are loved and nurtured, and where they can be active and fulfilled.

Extract from ABC Four Corners program Australia.

(C) ABC Australia