It’s an uncomfortable truth, but every week at least 50 sexual assaults take place in aged care facilities across our nation.
It is devastating, it is a travesty, it is something we as a nation must face and we must change.
Dr Catherine Barrett has dedicated the last 25 years of her life to this most awful and confronting of issues and for some time now has been working on a new resource not only aimed at raising awareness about elderly sexual assault and encouraging older people and their families to report it, but also working with aged care providers to develop best practice aged care.
The project, called #Ready To Listen, will see Barrett working closely with residential aged care facilities, or services that work with aged care facilities, to assist in improving the workforce’s knowledge of sexual assault as well as their capabilities to better respond.
Delivered by the Older Persons Advocacy Network (OPAN), on top of traditional educational approaches, such as Powerpoints and a range of seminars and workshops, the project is shaping as innovative in its rollout.
“We recognise that this is a really complex area of cultural change in a residential aged care home,” Barrett says.
“So what we’ve put up is a leadership course and what I’m doing over the next 12 months is I’m working with leaders from 30 organisations and services.”
The course is not a set series of online modules, but more a partnership.
Barrett, who founded and is a director of ageism awareness organisation Celebrate Ageing, is working with a range of service providers and over 12 months, helping them deliver education to their workforce in their workplace, and then working with them to say, ‘what else is it that you need to create change in your workplace?’
“A residential aged care service contacted me recently and said, ‘yes, Catherine, education on sexual assault is great, but what we also need is, what happens when there’s a new relationship that’s formed, perhaps involving someone who has cognitive impairment, we don’t know where the boundary is?
“How do we know someone has the capacity to consent?”
Another provider contacted her and said, ‘I want to do some work, but what I’m really focused on is, how do we support the workforce? Because if we’ve got a refugee and a migrant workforce, and they’ve come from trauma and that trauma included sexual assault, how do we expect people who have that trauma to deal with this trauma?’
Barrett says there are two factors here.
“One is understanding the wellbeing of the workforce in their own right, and the other is actually saying, ‘if we want to prevent sexual assault of residents, if we want to ask staff to do that, then we’ve got to look after staff’.
“And so what people are saying to me is, we need to develop resources for staff to support them, so that if they’re encountering sexual assault, and it’s triggering for them, rather than people walking away or maybe taking leave and so on, we’re actually giving them strategies that are empowering … and then they can respond in really appropriate ways with residents.”
Yet another facility head told Barrett that what they were really interested in doing is producing a resource on opening up conversations with residents, where, for example, they might be experiencing financial abuse or some other form of abuse, and they’re being sexually exploited or experiencing sexual abuse.
“It’s really about upskilling them in their workplace with the usual training approaches and then saying, ‘what do you need in your specific workplace?’” she says.
At the end of the course, Barrett will have harnessed a network of 30 leaders, all who’ve developed resources, and they’ll pool those to emerge with a suite of resources that will build capacity across the country.
#Ready To Listen has been given strong, heartfelt endorsement by OPAN CEO Craig Gear on the project’s website.
“Sexual assault devastates the lives of older people and is an absolute violation of their rights,” Gear says.
“This crime has been ignored or placed in the too hard basket for too long.
“It is a myth that low levels of reporting sexual assault equate to a low incidence of sexual assault.
“Low levels of reporting reflect the failure of providing safe, respectful pathways for older people, in particular women, to disclose what has happened to them.
“We need to listen to and learn from older women how to create pathways so they can safely disclose sexual assault.”
“The #ReadyToListen project is the start of an ongoing process of acknowledging older people are sexually assaulted, and that we must hold perpetrators accountable and develop prevention strategies.”
Barrett says Gear’s quotes are ‘incredibly important’ in the broader context of an acknowledgement of the seriousness of the issue in the sector.
“What I really love about Craig’s comments, is that I think that it’s the first time we’ve had a CEO of one of the peak bodies stand up and say, ‘what we’ve done has not been good enough’ and that sexual assault is devastating.
“The reason that is really incredibly important, is because KPMG launched research earlier this year, for the Serious Incident Response Scheme, where they surveyed staff in residential aged care.
“I think 58 per cent said there were no negative impacts from sexual assault or rape.
“That really demonstrates how hard we’re going to have to work to create cultural change.
“So having Craig stand up and say, ‘we’ve not done enough, it’s now time for change, sexual assault is devastating’, to have one of the CEOs of one of our peak bodies, stand up and say that, is incredibly important.”
Barrett says she wants to see more people stand up and just say this is not good enough.
“We have to open up the conversations and I think, in saying that he’s given a lot of people permission to talk about sexual assault.”
The other critical partner in #Ready To Listen is the Older Women’s Network of New South Wales.
“They’ve been championing this for quite a long time,” Barrett says.
“And they’ll be doing some workshops with older women to talk about what it is they need, and what their messages are to older women and their families about who experiences sexual assault.
“The key messages will be ‘it’s not your fault, you’ve got nothing to be ashamed of, please report it to OPAN’, to services that can support you, that kind of thing.”
So while getting and holding people’s attention on this most horrifying and distressing of subjects might be exhausting, Barrett feels an obligation to continue to speak for those who cannot or for whatever reason, will not.
“I’m not letting go of this until somebody else picks it up, because I did some work decades ago and became a lightning rod for people’s stories, I became the go-to person…
“So I haven’t been able to let it go, but what I take hope from now, is that OPAN as the peak body, they have an enormous influence, and they’re saying ‘this is a priority’.
“I’m just focused now on putting all my energy into making this work.
“Let’s make change happen now. That’s what we need to do. We have to make change.”
- Click here for more information on the #Ready To Listen project.