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Winter is coming: OPAN CEO opens up on the urgency for getting rights of older people in order

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Enshrining older Australians’ human rights continues to be the topic priority for the Older Persons Advocacy Network (OPAN) in 2022.

As the broader population eases into the new year, there has been little rest for the advocacy body, as chief executive officer Craig Gear tells Aged Care News, the fight to enshrine elders’ agency continues to be at odds with the acute battle against COVID-19.

“We found with the Omicron wave, that providers were still having challenges of knowing how to appropriately balance the human rights of older people to see and connect with people that they want – to have freedom of movement – with the absolute need to try and reduce the impact of COVID coming to facilities,” Gear says.

“And we’re not quite there yet.

“We have been working with a number of the other consumer organisations such as COTA (Council of the Ageing), and with even the provider peaks as well, to try and get a bit of balance in the system and, as we saw in January, the need to adjust the public health parameters.

Alongside COTA executives, Gear has been working with the federal health department on developing “a more balanced approach” to visitation rights.

While there is more work to be done, OPAN’s work has helped to strike a better balance between protective policies that minimise the harm of COVID-19, and the maintenance of elder humans rights, including freedom of movement and association.

Gear notes that this process has resulted in the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), the federal health department’s key decision making committee for health emergencies, releasing a new set of guidelines on February 1.

“We’re hoping that this will also give guidance to states and territories about what the right balance is and the huge impact that has, restricting people in what is their home,” Gear says.

Notably, these new guidelines emphasise the rights of older people living in RACFs to have at least one visitor a day, even in the instance of an active COVID-19 outbreak.

“And three types of people can be an essential visitor,” Gear explains.

“[Firstly], someone that’s considered a partner in care.

“[Secondly], someone that is a named visitor, who might be a friend or volunteer, someone else in the community that the older person themselves identifies.

“And the third category is during end-of-life palliative care, phases in which people can have greater access to family, friends, business during that time as well.

“So this guidance really says that that has to occur.”

… we need the visitation because we know that the impact on psychological well-being, physical deterioration and cognitive function has been significant and those things don’t come back if people can’t continue to connect.

OPAN CEO, Craig Gear

Advocacy on the topic doesn’t end there, however, as it will take extra work, notes Gear, to ensure every division of government, health systems and private residential facilities is on the same page and understands the rationale underpinning the recommendations.

“It’s going to take all levels of government and all levels of the health system, because it’s the local public health units who will be getting the guidance and implementing this, or saying that providers themselves have some level of autonomy in self-managing and outbreak,” Gear explains.

“Winter is coming; we’ve got a flu season coming up, and we need those protections in place.

“But, we need the visitation because we know that the impact on psychological well-being, physical deterioration and cognitive function has been significant and those things don’t come back if people can’t continue to connect.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve and intersect with other seasonal illnesses, Gear says that OPAN, alongside other peak bodies, will continue to re-evaluate guidelines to ensure they are continually fit for purpose.

“We are doing a review of them again this week to make sure they’re up to date with the latest CDNA [Communicable Diseases Network Australia] guidelines,” he says.

COVID experience emphasises the need for global rights framework

It’s been on the table for decades now, but OPAN advocates are determined for this to be the year where the United Nations (UN) formally ratifies a global Convention on the Rights of Older Persons.

Gear says that the adversities faced by older persons during COVID have been case in point.

… we want to see that their [older people’s] human rights are enshrined in legislation, are respected, and that there’s the ability to have consequences when those rights are not upheld.

Craig Gear

“Visitation is a good fundamental right and a derived freedom of movement, and that’s been constrained during COVID, more so for older people,” he says.

“It’s OK if we’re all being constrained, and there’s necessary public health safety measures that we need to put in place, but this is a good example of where the measures for older people are significantly more constrained than for others.

“And it goes to a basis of, yes, we’re trying to be protectionist and protect older people but in doing that, we can tend to get to the point of ageism.”

To discuss a rights-based path forward, OPAN is hosting an online seminar on March 2, Age with rights: Advocating for a UN Convention on the Rights of Older Persons.

Including commentary directly from members of OPAN’s National Older Persons Reference Group – Caroline Carroll, Robin Vote, Natalie Clements, Kathy Mansfield and Jegarra man Kevyn Morris – the webinar will be a nuanced conversation surrounding older persons’ rights, ageism, and the need for supporting a UN Convention on the Rights of Older Persons.

The webinar coincides with a global rally held by the Global Alliance for the Rights of Older People.  

“We need to continue [emphasising] the agency of older people and their autonomy,” Gears says.

“At the moment there’s other conventions – the rights in the persons with disabilities, protection of children – but there isn’t a specific convention about the rights of older people.

“And so we want to see that their human rights are enshrined in legislation, are respected, and that there’s the ability to have consequences when those rights are not upheld.

“And such a global framework will start to bring a thinking – will embed in our society, as well as within aged care providers – that the human rights of older people is what is paramount.

Gear notes that this piece of global governance will be vital in supporting advocates’ calls for a “rights based” replacement for Australia’s current, and much reviled, legislative framework: the Aged Care Act 1997.

“We think it will go some way to help frame a rights-based Aged Care Act.

“It’s possible to do it without it, but it gives it a greater strength and also means that you don’t check your rights in at the door when you enter aged care or when you become older.”

Giving a voice to older people

OPAN is a network of independent, non-profit organisations that aim to give a voice to older people at every stage of their aged care experience.

Funded by the federal health department, the network provides free, confidential and independent support to older people seeking or receiving government-funded aged care services, their families, and representatives across Australia.

To seek asssitance from OPAN, call 1800 700 600 from 8am to 8pm Monday to Friday and 10am to 4pm on Saturdays.

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