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What Price Human Rights?

When it comes to the rights we all enjoy, are older Australians left out in the cold?

As the community waits for the release of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety’s final report, we already know that the aged care system in this country is fundamentally broken.

Residential aged care has fundamental issues and, even though the majority of older Australians live in the community, many are forced into residential aged care because of the lack of home care packages.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the particular vulnerability of older people in aged care – their case numbers and deaths from the virus a national disgrace. The pandemic has also highlighted how the basic human rights of older people are being disregarded with terrible consequences by a paternalistic and inflexible system.

No one would suggest for a minute that vulnerable people should not be protected from the potential ravages of COVID-19, but nor should people be treated as objects stripped of their dignity and with no need for connection with their loved ones or community. All too often during the past year Seniors Rights Service has seen the human rights of older people being disregarded by a system that has failed to ensure they were protected against a virus we all knew was coming or by a one size fits all response that is lacking basic common sense and compassion.

One incident that I found particularly distressing involved a person who was unable to get their father’s personal effects returned for several weeks after they had died of COVID-19, apparently due to NSW public health orders regarding laundry. After too many calls to the aged care facility, they finally received them all thrown into a plastic garbage bag and handed over like a bag of rubbish….false teeth jumbled in amongst their war medals, a radio, dirty clothes and other personal effects with no care, or thought involved. A final humiliation.

One of the most common calls we have received is from aged care residents or their families, who have been prevented from seeing their mum or dad for weeks on end, have been unable to hold them, reassure them, comfort them, often during the most stressful of times. While workers were able to come and go from aged care facilities under infection control procedures, many have wondered why the same could not have been arranged for relatives who needed to be with their loved ones, too often but not only, at their time of their passing. Physical care is of course of upmost importance, but so too is emotional well-being, and the love and care provided by families and friends. Indeed many visitors to aged care are providing primary care to their loved ones, ensuring that they are receiving the care they require. Being prevented from doing so has caused enormous stress and distress to many, and we would argue, unnecessarily.

Government guidelines were issued spelling out how safety could be ensured while providing options for residents to continue to interact with their families and friends – but too many facilities just ignored these, perhaps because it was easier and cheaper to ignore the rights of residents.

We must get a better balance between a system that can assert the human rights of older people while also protecting them. It may seem strange to have to argue for what seems so logical. But the people who come to Seniors Rights Service for advice and support too often bear witness to appalling breaches of human rights: the right to be treated with respect; the right to make independent decisions about care and treatment, or about personal or social life; the right to be listened to and to have culture and beliefs recognized.

Arguments that the duty of care requires decisions that restrict the autonomy and self-agency of older people ‘in their best interests’ have allowed the system to tip too far in favor of benevolent paternalism. Only by putting human rights at the centre of a new Aged Care Act, ahead of the business and economies of delivering aged care, will we also get a system that is adequately resourced and supported and that provides dignity and respect to the people in its care.

Without a total re-framing of the way we see our aged care system, older people will remain objects upon which we impose our biases and assumptions. The Royal Commission has heard overwhelming evidence of how broken the aged care system is in hundreds of submissions. We see it everyday in the stories of people who come to our service for support and advocacy.

People in aged care should have the same human rights as all people. They are still citizens. We must fix this now, from the very roots up. Anything less is totally unacceptable.

Margaret Duckett is a member of the NSW Left.


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