Careers of elderly deserve better: ANU study

The education and training opportunities provided by nursing homes for staff who care for elderly residents is worryingly inadequate, particularly for those caring for dementia patients, according to a pilot study conducted by ANU researchers.

The study conducted by ANU Medical School Visiting Fellow Dr Tony Schumacher Jones and colleagues asked carers to report how much education in mental illness and dementia care was provided by the facility they worked at, both at the commencement of their employment and on a day-to-day basis.

It found that over 79 per cent of carers working in dementia specific units had received no training in mental illness at the start of their work and over 64 per cent had received no dementia training. Over 87 per cent of those surveyed reported the facility provided no ongoing training in mental illness and over 60 per cent reported they received no ongoing training in dementia care.

"These units are where the most profoundly impaired elderly people live those who suffer from moderate to severe dementia and who typically exhibit a whole range of emotional, behavioural and psychological disturbances," Dr Jones said.

"This is the most demanding area of aged care to work in."

Dr Jones' study also sought to understand the working conditions of personal carers in aged care. The findings include:

  • Over 60 percent of carers reported they were regularly given too much work to do;
  • Over 80 percent reported being given work that was impossible to complete in one shift;
  • Almost 30 percent reported being abused on a daily basis by residents;
  • Some 25 percent reported regular physical assaults by residents and;
  • Almost 30 percent reported they had been touched in a sexually inappropriate way by residents sometime during the previous month.

"While we have rightly focussed upon the plight of the elderly in care we have, regretfully, tended to ignore those who daily care for our elderly citizens. These personal carers possess a great store of compassion, commitment and energy which they direct towards the difficult and challenging task of caring for those with dementia and mental illness," Dr Jones said.

"Yet how much do we as a society value them? According to the Health Services Union a personal care in NSW with a Certificate Three in Aged Care can expect to earn a miserly $13.53 an hour. According to the Australian Nurses Federation award wage rates for nurses working in aged care in the ACT are $297.70 a week less than public sector award rate. No wonder professionally trained mental health nurses have left aged care in droves."

The answer to these challenges was not necessarily mandatory reporting, but better valuing the staff in residential care facilities and improved education for those staff, Dr Jones said.

"Aged care and the conditions under which people live in nursing homes have seldom been an election issue. Although we pay lip service to valuing the aged and recognising the difficult, important and socially useful work that carers do, it often appears that our actions fall well short of our rhetoric. It is time to re-engage with the aged and also to support and nurture those who care for them."


Dr Jones is also employed by ACT
Health ANU Media Office contact: Jane O'Dwyer +61 261 255 001/ +61 416 249 231

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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