The New Zealand Herald’s 24 March editorial ‘Rest home watchdog required’ does not portray the reality of what is happening in New Zealand’s aged residential care sector.
It references the Herald’s series of ‘rest home investigations’ revealing a number of unfortunate high-profile incidents, drawn from Ministry of Health audit reports, obtained under the Official Information Act, where care has been found to be inadequate.
As distressing as it is to read of these cases – and let me be clear, we do not condone even one incident of inadequate care – it is important to put it in context. The vast majority of providers are doing an extremely good job of caring for the more than 35,000 elderly citizens living in some 600 aged residential care facilities around the country.
As the editorial correctly points out, future demand will increase pressure on providers with occupancy set to rise to 58,000 by 2030, and more people entering care and at an older age and thus with higher and more complex care needs.
So yes, change is needed to address the limitations of New Zealand’s current aged care delivery model to better reflect its central role in caring for our elderly loved ones.
But, adding another watchdog, as suggested in the editorial, is not the solution. We already have a rigorous and effective regulatory system with the Ministry of Health’s HealthCERT, the local district health boards (DHBs) and the Health and Disability Commissioner (HDC) – all of which have the authority to investigate facilities at a very high level.
The Ministry of Health audits drawn on in the Herald investigations illustrate the system is effective, and it is fully transparent. Though there is always room for improvement, particularly around the timeliness of the HDC complaints process, now 20 years old and with scope to be speedier.
Rather than duplicating the system by adding another watchdog, we should elevate aged care to a ministerial portfolio, as the Australian Government has done with the Minister for Aged Care, committing to a sustainable system giving older people more choice, easier access and quality care.
Likewise, with the British Government’s recent appointment of a Minister for Loneliness, to address this devastating scourge across society – with more than a third of elderly people reported being overwhelmed by loneliness.
Appointing a New Zealand ‘Minister of Ageing’ would ensure ageing and its associated issues have a strong voice in Cabinet, rather than though advocacy by sector groups alone. A Minister would become a strong advocate for ageing across the spectrum from aged care and loneliness through social security and transport.
The reality is that our system has not kept pace with the increased demands and costs of aged care putting significant strain on individual facilities’ abilities to provide optimal staffing, technological advancements, an expensive array of equipment, and meet rising resident and family expectations.
A new watchdog is not going to address these systemic challenges. It’s time to elevate aged care in our social and political structure for the sake of all our futures.