'I'm not going to be silent': plea to rethink care royal commission
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'I'm not going to be silent': plea to rethink care royal commission

Margaret Leigh, a retired registered nurse and former resident of an Aveo retirement village, has seen a lot.

Leigh was a resident in the same Victorian village where 93-year-old Iris Lees was found dead in horrific circumstances, hours after walking out of her unit into the garden during a heat wave.

Margaret Leigh lived in a retirement village for six years. She has seen some horrific things go on and is standing up to get the federal government to include it in the royal commission.

Margaret Leigh lived in a retirement village for six years. She has seen some horrific things go on and is standing up to get the federal government to include it in the royal commission. Credit:Eddie Jim

Leigh says she had frequently found Iris Lees wandering on a busy main road and would return her to her unit. But the day Lees died in mid January 2014, Leigh wasn’t around. "Iris was found deceased, sunburned, trying to climb a tree to escape the heat," she says.

The shocking death haunts Leigh to this day.

She left the Aveo retirement village in Bentleigh a year ago and has never looked back. "It is such a relief to be out of there," she said.

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Now she wants to speak up. "I’m retired but I’m not going to be silent. This can’t be brushed under the carpet."

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Leigh has been lobbying politicians to ensure that retirement villages are included in the terms of reference of the royal commission into aged care. She is worried they will escape the royal commission’s glare.

She says friends in other retirement villages in the multi-billion dollar industry relay disturbing stories of what goes on behind closed doors. Leigh says one friend was found on the floor of her unit days after collapsing. "She had to go to hospital for several weeks and she is still very unwell," Leigh says.

A key problem is the sector is regulated by the states, which have done a poor job of it.

There's no ombudsman, no mandatory accreditation system and no regulatory oversight of village finances or changes in operators. Nor is there any regulation of exit fees, which can be as high as 40 per cent of the sale price when a resident leaves.

In 2007 a federal parliamentary inquiry recommended the Commonwealth step in and regulate the sector. Nothing happened.

At a press conference in Canberra on Tuesday, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked if retirement villages would be included in the terms of reference for the royal commission into aged care.

His response lacked an understanding of the seriousness of the issues in the sector whose peak lobby group is an arm of the powerful Property Council of Australia.

"It's a state issue that would require the agreement and participation of the state and territory premiers and their governments. That's an open invitation to them, but that is something for them to consider. I'm not going to allow that process to delay us getting on with the job of this Royal Commission," Morrison said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Minister for Senior Australians Ken Wyatt at a door stop on the royal commission

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Minister for Senior Australians Ken Wyatt at a door stop on the royal commissionCredit: Alex Ellinghausen

It was a disappointing response from someone trying to paint the government as caring about the aged.

Despite the various scandals and parliamentary inquiries, the states have shown little appetite to do anything.

Indeed in Victoria the Andrews' government’s idea of reforming retirement villages was to "push it off into the long grass of more reviews", according various housing residents and advocates.

Many residents of retirement villages have written to their local politicians hoping to be heard. They hope that the Minister for Aged Care, Ken Wyatt, this time, will listen to their calls.

But Wyatt has been a quiet voice on aged care and retirement villages in the past. He accused the Opposition Leader Bill Shorten of "fear mongering" when he described aged care as a "national crisis".

Consumer Action Law Centre director Gerard Brody.

Consumer Action Law Centre director Gerard Brody.

Consumer Action Law Centre chief executive Gerard Brody has also written to the Prime Minister and others urging them to include retirement housing within the terms of reference of the royal commission.

Brody says retirement village operators are making use of in-home packages and higher care. "Many will suffer ill health which is why it is important that the royal commission examines."

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He says despite the intense focus on problems in retirement villages over the past year, including parliamentary committees and the joint investigation by Fairfax Media and ABC's Four Corners - which uncovered fee gouging, misleading marketing and advertising, churning of residents, questionable security and too few staff - there has been little change.

"What we need is much greater protections around contracts, fairer pricing including dealing with deferred management fees, greater training and accreditation for retirement village managers, and of course improved dispute resolution like an ombudsman which can actually do something when residents have a complaint," he says.

Last year Professor Allan Fels described the retirement village rort as the greatest untouched consumer protection issue of this century.

Speaking from China he said it was imperative that villages were included in the terms of reference of the royal commission.

He sums it up neatly saying: "It is an important component of aged care."

Adele Ferguson comments on companies, markets and the economy.

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