Such little value placed on such a crucial role
Only a couple of generations ago, it was normal for Australian families to take care of their older members right to the end of their lives. Our parents and grandparents fed, clothed, loved and cared for us, gave us everything we needed to make our way in life and then, when they reached an age where they in turn needed close care, we repaid them by taking them into our homes and looking after them until their dying days.
The world has changed a lot since then. Far more typical now is for the frail and elderly to enter an aged care facility - or even more commonly depend on community care workers visiting them at home.
We hope they will get the best of care from dedicated professional staff and enjoy good quality of life despite the many afflictions that old age can bring: illness, injuries, dementia, failing faculties.
In a sense we have “out-sourced” the care of our elderly family to the aged care sector. This is completely understandable; the pace and pressures of modern life, the many families where both partners work full time or there is only one parent, increasing work hours and the demands of raising children, all can combine to make it impossible to take on the full-time care of our older relatives as well.
Many families do try valiantly to “take care of their own” the old way, but a time eventually comes when their relative needs intensive professional care and it is simply beyond them. We need not feel guilty or ashamed about this.
But if, as a nation, we do want to hold our heads up without shame, then we simply must be prepared to pay the bill for this expensive “out-sourced” care. We must have governments willing to fund aged care to a level that means a decent life for elderly Australians and we must have taxpayers (and voters) willing to support that.
In fact, we must insist our governments do so as one of the highest national priorities. What could possibly be more important?
Critical to the quality of care of older Australians is the workforce that physically, day and night, seven days a week, provides that care. It’s time for Australians to ask themselves just how valuable that work is; what’s it worth to us?
It’s tough work, though those who do it find it extremely rewarding in human terms. They form close relationships with the elderly they care for - almost a substitute for the family closeness of by-gone days. They deal routinely with issues such as dementia, immobility, incontinence and the suffering inflicted by serious end-of-life illnesses.
All too frequently they are the only one present when someone - someone they’ve come to care for deeply - passes away. It can be hard going.
To me it’s an enduring national disgrace that we all seem able to live with a system in which these people, who are caring for a whole generation of Australians, who will eventually do the same for most of us, are paid just $18 an hour.
This is truly a poverty wage. It’s very hard to put food on the table and meet bills from a pay packet that mean.To pick one comparative example at random, rates for a worker holding a stop/go lollipop sign in Victoria is $29.50 an hour - more if employed causally. Now, this is doubtless an important job and tedious, dirty, unpleasant work. I don’t suggest those workers deserve less.
But that modest wage for roadside work is approaching double what we pay those caring for our elderly Australians, round the clock, in sickness and health.
The National Aged Care Alliance of all the major employers and providers, church groups, unions, professional groups and the Council for the Aging went to Canberra this week to demand reform to the sector, including funding for a basic living wage for aged care workers.
Last month workers employed in welfare and disability organisations received significant wage rises, though phased in over eight years. In making the order, Fair Work Australia recognised the high value of the work they do, the fact they are among the lowest paid workers in Australia and, importantly, that this “caring” workforce is predominately female.
Prime Minister Gillard welcomed the decision saying, “These are workers who make a difference every day for the most vulnerable in our community and deserve to be properly rewarded for their efforts.
“Properly valuing caring work and providing decent wages in industries dominated by women ...” is something her government strongly supports.
We couldn’t agree more. So let’s apply these same sentiments to aged care workers and there are more than 300,000, overwhelmingly women.The sector cannot afford the rise without ear-marked funding for wage increases from the Federal Government in the forthcoming Budget.
It’s now time for the Labor government to put its money where its rhetoric is and rectify this appalling state of affairs. If Australia - via our elected government - doesn’t ensure aged care workers a wage they can live on, we should all take our aging family members back home and care for them ourselves.
Or hang our heads in shame.
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