ACT News

Low staffing levels in ACT nursing homes put elderly at risk

Frail and elderly people are being put at risk of falls, dehydration and malnutrition in ACT nursing homes due to a lack of mandatory staff-to-patient ratios, advocacy groups for the aged have warned.

In one Canberra nursing home an elderly diabetic woman was consistently found soaked in her own urine, hungry and under medicated for months before she was rushed to hospital with high blood sugar levels in December.

The woman, who was subject of a complaint to the Aged Care Complaints Scheme, is still in hospital nearly a year later and her daughter says she is too frightened to place her mother in another nursing home. 

"The people who work there are not bad people - the majority who I met there want to do the right thing they just don't have the time," the woman, who asked not to be named for fear of further disadvantaging her mother, said.

"They (the staff) are really caring once they get to your parent but they have people calling out for them all the time."

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation wants the Commonwealth to introduce mandatory minimum levels of staffing for every shift, including a guarantee that at least one registered nurse will always be on duty.

The call has been strongly backed by the Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association, the Council On The Ageing (COTA) and the Aged Care Crisis consumer group.

Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation ACT branch secretary Jenny Miragaya said the government should also mandate the mix of staffing to ensure enough qualified people were on duty at all times.

"This is a matter of safety," she said.

However the federal government has resisted calls for action. Federal assistant minister for Social Services senator Mitch Fifield said the government took "care of our older community seriously"  but had no plans to implement minimum staff ratios.

"Commonwealth-funded aged-care providers are required by law to meet accreditation standards to ensure that quality care and services are provided to all residents," he said.

"Under the Standards aged-care providers must ensure there are adequate numbers of skilled staff to meet the individual care needs of residents.

"The ratio of staff-to-residents varies across facilities depending on the care needs of their residents which will fluctuate.

"As there is no single optimum staffing level or mix that meets all circumstances in providing quality aged care, Commonwealth legislation governing the operation of the aged-care sector does not include mandatory staff-to-resident ratios."

COTA ACT executive director Paul Flint said Canberra was more disadvantaged than other parts of the country.

"We totally agree it is quality and level of service that's an issue and having adequate and appropriately trained staff is necessary," he said.

"But the current levels of funding put massive constraints on it and this is exacerbated in the ACT due to high levels of employment and high wages in the ACT. It is in an environment where competition for workers is strong."

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare revealed on Wednesday the ACT had the second lowest aged-care funding per capita of all states and territories, behind the Northern Territory. In 2013 the ACT received $161 million of funding for aged-care programs, about $420 per Canberra resident which paled in comparison to the national average of $584 per person.

The federal government's latest report on the Operation of the Aged Care Act, for 2012-13, shows Canberra had the highest average number of complaints per residential aged-care service in the country and the country's lowest proportion of complaints finalised within the first 90 days.