Keeping older people cared for and connected

22 June 2020 | Posted In: #135 Winter 2020,

We hear that the future of aged care in Australia is in the home. But, as TIM HORTON reports, that future is already here, in the form of the Commonwealth Home Support Program.

Around 850,000 people across Australia are supported by the Commonwealth Home Support Program (CHSP) — that’s 600,000 more people than are in residential care. At a cost of $2,800 per person (compared to $50,000 for someone in residential care), CHSP is the most cost-efficient aged-care program in the country. And it’s popular, too. Older people say that it transforms and saves their lives by helping them stay connected with their families, their communities, and their cultures.

Aged care continues to change, however. Along the way there have been government reforms, the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, as well as changing demographics and expectations. In this fluid environment, the question on everyone’s lips has been: what’s the future of CHSP? A group of New South Wales CHSP support and development workers thought it was time for CHSP itself to explore the answers to that question.

So what better way than to organise a conference so that the sector could take a deep dive into the future of the program. And it was immediately clear there was a real hunger for this. Indeed, delegate numbers had to be tripled to meet demand, with ultimately more than 300 people from around Australia attending the conference in Sydney in March. The goal of the conference was to showcase both the ever-evolving way in which home support keeps people connected, as well as consider the challenges the sector is facing — whether it’s retaining and increasing the workforce, meeting the needs of diverse older people, or energising different generations to maintain social connection.

More than 40 speakers and presenters were selected for the conference program — and a number of key messages emerged. None more significant than the assurance from guest speaker — the Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians, the Hon Richard Colbeck — that the Australian government saw the value in maintaining the flexibility afforded by block funding CHSP. There was also a clear reminder from the keynote speaker — Robert Fitzgerald, NSW Ageing and Disability Commissioner — that CHSP services play a key role in upholding older Australians’ rights, and preventing and looking out for actions that take away those rights.

Across the conference themes — future, connection, and quality — there was a clear need for a stronger focus on the qualifications of paid and unpaid staff, management support for staff, and collaborative workforce strategies. Research has shown that, to improve support for older people and to provide more meaningful work for employees, staff themselves are keen to see attention move away from the bottom line and toward greater quality care.

There was also a clear message that clients and workers alike are looking for collaborative ways of connecting. One project, for instance, is linking volunteers with a background of homelessness to help improve the housing security of older clients. This collaborative approach was echoed in the use of technology to improve virtual connections for older people. Breaking assumptions about their lack of digital knowledge, an innovative project on the NSW mid-north coast approached older people themselves to find out what they used and needed to reach out online.

A number of presentations demonstrated the need to shift preconceptions of ageing, and of older people’s attitudes to ageing. This reminded delegates that older people cannot be easily pigeon-holed; they come from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences. This message came loud and clear in a presentation from the National LGBTI Health Alliance. The presentation showed the importance of staff understanding the lived experience of LGBTI people, including recognising past traumas they may have suffered — such as homophobic abuse or surviving HIV through the horrors of the ’80s and ’90s.

The conference wrapped up with a panel discussion that neatly reflected the message of the CHSP program itself — and, more recently, of government: that keeping older people well and connected means ensuring that services coordinate with one another through personal collaboration and a shared understanding of the needs of their clients.

The member organisations of the conference committee were: Aged & Community Services Australia; Canterbury City Community Centre; Ethnic Community Services Cooperative; Inner Sydney Voice; The Junction Neighbourhood Centre; and The Multicultural Network.