2018 must be a year of action for age services in Australia. The needs of the growing numbers of older Australians, combined with a system experiencing significant change, cannot be ignored.

Fundamental issues relating to the four key areas of quality of services, access to services, funding of services, and delivery of services, must be resolved.

To effectively address these issues, we need to step back and consider the issue of ageing in Australia more broadly.

As the baby boomer generation ages, our country is on the cusp of a ‘new normal’ with regards to the number of older Australians in our society. This is a positive outcome that signifies our success as a nation in enabling people to live longer, healthier and more productive lives.

However, with this impending increase in older Australians the tone of most discussions regarding ageing in our country are framed as a problem to be solved or a burden to be borne. To move forward effectively, we need to reframe this discussion.

The issues of ageing and aged care are of national importance and we need a ‘national conversation’ to engage all Australians in what it means to age in our country. This will allow our society to consider key issues such as ageism, elder abuse, retirement age/incomes, and the like, in a meaningful and respectful way.

A national discussion will enable us as a society to understand these issues, determine solutions, manage expectations, and reach agreement on how we can best enable and support the growing number of older Australians to age well, continue to contribute our society and economy, and be appropriately cared for and supported.

In this context, the issues of aged care can be better understood and resolved. For example, quality of care within the age services industry in Australia is an ever present priority. Fundamental to this, is an aged care regulatory system that assures the community of the safety, wellbeing and quality of life for older Australians receiving care, support and accommodation. The new draft Aged Care Quality Standards released by the Department of Health in January will support further quality improvement.

Of course, quality and standards in aged care are intrinsically linked to our industry’s workforce. Quality of care is not as simple as the number of staff on duty or arbitrary staffing ratios. Staffing in aged care is more about the quality of staff. With the quality of each staff member being a combination of character, temperament, qualifications and experience.

Furthermore, the basis for deciding on staffing levels and their skills mix needs to be driven by the actual care needs of individual residents. Flexibility to adjust the staffing mix as the profile of an aged care facility’s residents change is a very important consideration, as is the adaptability to move to new models of care driven by innovation and new technology

Our industry has welcomed the opportunity to work with the Federal Government’s Aged Care Workforce Taskforce which is responsible for developing a wide-ranging workforce strategy focused on ensuring safe, quality aged care for older Australians. This taskforce is expected to complete its work by 30 June this year.

To support high quality age services delivered by appropriately trained and qualified staff we need a stable and equitable funding base. The current funding system is not sustainable and a national solution to funding the growing cost of aged care is required. We need to design and develop a sustainable funding strategy underpinned by detailed research, analysis and modelling.

Funding options for consideration should include examples from other countries, such as national insurance schemes, taxpayer levies, user-pays models, taxation concessions/supplements, etc.

It should be noted that around $3 billion has been withdrawn from aged care system funding by successive Governments over the past 5 years and the impact of recent Aged Care Funding Instrument (ACFI) changes will continue to bite over the coming financial year.

These cuts are compounded by the growing complexity of residents’ needs, changing consumer and community expectations, and rising operating costs, which are all placing increasing financial pressure on residential care providers. This is particularly true in rural and regional settings where viability of many providers is being threatened.

Further, the need for a multi-pronged response to the growing national queue for home care packages, which sees over 100,000 older Australians waiting for services, is clear.

The development and implementation of a sustainable funding strategy will ensure care and services are available for older Australians as their needs arise, while also providing certainty, stability and viability for our aged care system for the next decade, and not just the next year. Put simply, to ensure accessible, affordable, quality care and services for older Australians, now and into the future, our aged care system needs to be properly planned for and properly funded.

The age services industry is in the process of transformational change driven by an aged care reform agenda that is predicated on four core principles: ageing in place (your home and community); consumer choice; market-based competition; and consumers contributing to the cost of their care.

The Federal Government has conducted several recent reviews considering the reform agenda and other issues of importance for aged care in Australia. The Government has said that the findings and recommendations of these reviews will be addressed in the upcoming Budget.

To deliver the aged care system that older Australians and their families need, and our industry wants to deliver, we must have bipartisan political will and leadership.

We must seize this opportunity to ensure all older Australians have available to them accessible, affordable, quality care and services, delivered by a high performing, respected and sustainable age services industry.

Expectations are set that 2018 must be the year of ‘action’. The issues of ageing and aged care in Australia are too important not to get right.

Sean Rooney is the CEO of Leading Age Services Australia (LASA)

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