By Tracey Ryan
In the past month, Shine Lawyers has been approached by grieving children of deceased elderly who have died untimely, undignified and tragic deaths in the aged care system.
I have one client who walked into a nursing home, as a body bag was getting wheeled out by nursing home staff. It was his mother’s body but the aged care facility neglected to tell him that his mother had died.
I have another whose daughter consistently urged a nursing home to raise the bed rails in her room for fear that she might roll over and injure herself. Her mother struggled with dementia and was often disoriented. The facility did not heed the advice, our client’s mother rolled over and sustained a head injury which would later lead to her death.
There is a third matter where a client’s mother watched on as aged care workers ate her meals and let her starve until she was an unrecognisable, skeletal shadow of her former self. These same workers sprayed Glen 20 in her face. They never admitted to their crimes, but several were dismissed by the facility when the doctor discovered this gross abuse of her vulnerable mother.
Each story is more harrowing than the next, and perhaps the greatest failing of all is that it follows a Royal Commission Inquiry into Aged Care Quality and Safety. It is one year since the recommendations from this Inquiry were tabled in Parliament but the stories have only worsened and the monitoring and collective conscience on this issue seems to have been muted and meanwhile our elderly are suffering in silence.
In the Final Report issued in March, 2021, the Commission accurately stated that “a profound shift is required in which the people receiving care are placed at the centre of a new aged care system. In the words of one commentator, aged care does not ‘need renovations, it needs a rebuild.’” This was necessary acknowledgment of gross failings of the most vulnerable sector of our society.
It discussed ‘knowing neglect and wilful failure’ in aged care facilities across the country and yet, the same issues have resurfaced in a perpetual cycle. The pandemic hasn’t helped either. It has isolated those in care and allowed for a veil of secrecy to cover the sins of aged care institutions across Australia. For many communication and connection was cut off when visitations were no longer allowed. There was no way to track how care was administered, if medication was given on time, if elderly residents were being fed, if they were even comfortable, clothed, bathed, and just treated like human beings. The end result of two years of a pandemic and lockdowns, is a lack of transparency and accountability in the aged care system.
As a lawyer, I pursue claims in estate litigation and often help families resolve will disputes. From a personal injury perspective, we also look at the ongoing psychiatric trauma that families endure when loved ones pass away at an aged care facility. Many of the surviving relatives end up with ongoing mental health issues as they become burdened by the reality that their loved ones died in a facility entrusted with their care, but that ultimately fails them.
What I’ve seen from these surviving relatives, is that putting a loved one in care is always a heavy-laden responsibility. It always comes at great personal cost but is a decision made out of necessity and hope that where their loved ones are placed, is where the best care should and will be. Sadly, it’s not the case for many.
An issue many lawyers are grappling with at this time, is the lack of value that the law and the government places on the elderly. If loss and death was properly compensable, aged care workers might have more of a conscience about how they treat their residents. They would surely pay more attention to quality care, health, and safety standards, knowing that there would be heavy and expensive consequences for failing in their duties of care. Our aged care facilities are supposed to be caring for people who have often made great contributions during their life to society – but there are significant failings.
What we see however, is that the elderly, as far as a compensation scheme goes, are invisible, and in some cases, worth very little. If an old person passes away in care and they have no economic loss, the value on their life has no monetary figure.
Imagine being someone who contributed to the community for 80+ years only to learn that in your final days, that contribution is worthless in a court case if you no longer have an income or dependants to claim the loss.
I’d like to see the Government introduce a redress scheme for the untimely deaths of our loved ones in care. I’d like to see more accountability and consequences so that aged care facilities know they are being watched, and so they also know that they won’t get away with the gross negligence that continues to occur.
Age is a gift and our elderly should be treasured and treated as such by the government and by those entrusted with their care. Anything less, isn’t good enough and should be punished.
- Tracey Ryan is a Special Counsel and the General Manager of Shine Lawyers’ Litigation and Loss Recovery practices in Brisbane. Her role includes overseeing Estate Litigation and Financial Elder Abuse, and Family Law.