The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, in its interim COVID-19 Report released in September 2020, highlighted that 74% of the Australians who had died from COVID-19 were living in residential aged care accommodation.1
COVID-19 has presented specific difficulties for older Australians, particularly those living in residential aged care, including increased risk of infection, severe disease and death.
Those caring for, and treating, older Australians are also at an increased risk of infection. Casualisation of the aged care workforce and low rates of pay have resulted in an under-skilled aged care workforce,2 which has exacerbated the dangers of COVID-19 for older Australians living in residential aged care.
Many aged care workers tend to work across a number of facilities and can unknowingly increase the risk of transmission to older persons.3
In residential aged care, an infection outbreak has the potential to cause serious illness and death among vulnerable older people and staff. It is reported that staff are inadequately trained in infection control and hygiene, when access to gloves, wipes and protective equipment is limited.4
Yet the pandemic has also disproportionately impacted those living in residential aged care beyond the deaths related to COVID-19.
Older Australians living in residential aged care are at risk of social isolation, which may lead to mental health impacts such as depression, anxiety and confusion. Additionally, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, people who identify as part of the LGBTI communities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in major cities and in rural and remote communities, and veterans, require additional support to remain socially connected to their communities.
Government-imposed restrictions on movement and reduced contact with visitors, families and support networks have compounded the social isolation experienced by older Australians in residential aged care.
The Royal Commission’s COVID-19 special report and final report recommended that the Australian Government ensure adequate staffing levels in residential aged care, both in ratio and skillset, to allow continued visitation from friends and family.5
Although many aged care homes have not experienced a COVID-19 outbreak, many residents continue to endure restrictions that are well beyond those imposed on the general population. The Royal Commission reports that thousands of residents in homes that have not suffered outbreaks have endured months of isolation which has had, and continues to have, a terrible effect on their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
While additional and targeted protective measures may be necessary to protect residential aged care residents in the event of an outbreak, the Government should continue to review any measures on a regular basis, to ensure the appropriate balance is struck between aged care residents’ human rights and the need to safeguard them from infection.
Anke Joubert is a Legal Assistant on the QLS policy team. This article was prepared under the supervision of Policy Solicitor Brook Thompson.
1 Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, ‘Aged care and COVID-19: a special report’, The Commonwealth of Australia 2020, agedcare.royalcommission.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-10/aged-care-and-covid-19-a-special-report.pdf, p2 ‘COVID-19 Special Report’.
2 Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, ‘Final Report – Care, Dignity and Respect: Volume 2’, The Commonwealth of Australia, agedcare.royalcommission.gov.au/publications/final-report-volume-2 p 214, ‘Final Report’, p214.
3 Mandy Truong and Jacqui Allen, ‘The social determinants of health in COVID-19 recovery’, Monash University Lens, 2020, lens.monash.edu/@coronavirus-articles/2020/09/23/1381322/the-social-determinants-of-health-in-covid-19-recovery.
4 Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, ‘Final Report Executive Summary’, agedcare.royalcommission.gov.au/sites/default/files/2021-03/final-report-executive-summary.pdf, p71, ‘Final Report Executive Summary’.
5 Final Report Executive Summary (n4); COVID-19 Special Report (n1).