‘Exhausting and confusing’: Regional Australians reveal struggles with aged care system

Researchers from La Trobe University have outlined some of the shortfalls of aged care in rural and regional Australia, including a serious lack of access and difficulties in managing the system for vulnerable people.

As part of the study, researchers identified a number of issues with services — including long waiting lists, inability to make complaints due to lack of other care options, and difficulty accessing relevant information.

La Trobe University Professor Irene Blackberry said older people living in rural areas were at a disadvantage.

“Often there is only one provider in a town or region, meaning older people may have to endure poor service from their provider, because there is no other option,” Dr Blackberry said.

“Compounding this a lack of clear, easily accessible information, to help people access the services they need, or make informed choices about their care.”

Growing older made harder in the country

Christine Stewart is a carer for her husband Robert in Beechworth, in north-east Victoria, and said navigating support within the aged care system was exhausting.

Older woman stands next to sick old man.
Christine Stewart with her husband Robert who is in palliative care and has multiple health issues(Supplied: Christine Stewart)

Ms Stewart applied for a home care package to support Robert, who is in palliative care and lives with pulmonary hypertension.

She said they had waited two years for a homecare package and there was little help locally in their small town to support their dilemma.

“There needs to be a major overhaul from anything associated with accessing homecare services,” Ms Stewart said.

Mr Stewart said growing older was one of the most vulnerable times in an individual’s life.

“Many people as they age lose confidence when their health declines and they can no longer care for themselves,” she said.

“This coupled with things like dementia, hearing loss and mobility issues makes it a very anxious time.

“The last stress you need is dealing with an aged care system that is not coping in providing the services needed.”

Research highlighting gaps in the system

The La Trobe University findings into issues within the sector interviewed dozens of older people living in rural Victoria and New South Wales.

The university has submitted the findings to the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety.

Dr Blackberry said the Australian Government’s My Aged Care website — designed to help people find and access government-funded aged care services — often left people confused.

Woman smiling.
La Trobe University Professor Irene Blackberry has been overseeing the study into aged care issues in regional Australia.(Supplied: La Trobe University)

“Many older people reported having to wade through copious amounts of irrelevant information to find what they needed — that’s if they had the skills to search online in the first place,” Dr Blackberry said.

“We also discovered that some rural primary healthcare workers lacked knowledge of My Aged Care and local aged care services.

Despite the issues, she said she hoped the research would highlight inadequacies and make way for change.

“We’re hopeful this research will make a significant change to policy and practice in Australia,” Dr Blackberry said.

Senior Research and Policy Manager at the Consumer Policy Research Centre, Ben Martin Hobbs, said understanding issues facing rural older people was critical in future planning.

“Better understanding how people actually make choices, and the difficulties they face in navigating these complex services is essential to ensure policymakers design markets that are fair, inclusive and accessible to all consumers,” he said.