The latest COVID-19 outbreaks in Sydney’s aged care institutions have yet again highlighted Australia’s inability to appropriately shield our ageing population. Lockdowns are distressing for all families and particularly for those with loved ones in care where there is an increasing concern that they may not be properly protected during this pandemic. Unfortunately, this is only going to be exacerbated each time there is another pandemic and there will be more.
Declining birth rates and an increased life expectancy have resulted in a significant increase in the number and proportion of older people in Australia. Between 2000 and 2030, the ABS projected that Australia’s population will increase by around a third. In the same period, the number of people aged 65 years and over is projected to increase by 139%, comprising 5.7 million people.
This means more people ‘sandwiched’ between their elderly parents and growing children. There are an estimated 1.5 million Australians in their 40s and 50s who are juggling the competing demands and responsibilities of their children, work and their retired parents. This number is likely to increase as we continue to live longer and have our children later in life, suggesting that we can no longer assume our children will have moved out before our parents require care.
Children and grandchildren of older people often feel they have to ‘check-in’ on their health when together. This means conversations often become focused on wellness and health rather than personal catchups, which can make older people feel as if they are being monitored, rather than simply spending quality time together.
Recent Royal Commission statistics show that adults of all ages overwhelmingly have a positive perspective towards people aged 70 and older, and believe society has an obligation to look after and care for them. However, of the Australians who know someone living in an aged care facility, only 6% make contact daily and 25% make contact weekly, with one in five people never contacting or visiting. Our community’s perceptions about residents’ welfare and wellbeing in residential aged care facilities are exceedingly negative. 88% of individuals agree that residents are often lonely, with 69% agreeing the residents do not have control over their lives and 57% agreeing they are largely unhappy. Older Australians prefer support from their family and friends when they are no longer able to live entirely independently, requiring assistance with shopping, cooking, cleaning and attending medical appointments. 75% of older Australians want to continue living in their own home if they ever had the need for support of care, highlighting the opportunity for an alternative form of aged care.
There are some government programs in place to support the wish for older Australians to remain in their homes, however there are gaps in availability and workforce supply. As well as this, there has been widespread criticism surrounding the administrative costs of some community aged care packages, suggesting they are too high and thus reducing the amount of the subsidy available to fund the hours of care. This shouldn’t have to be the case.
There are solutions available that can alleviate this to allow for time spent together to be quality time. Assistive technology can allow older Australians to remain in an independent living environment for longer, reducing the need for round-the-clock care, thus reducing the worries often experienced by family members. However, peak providers are flat out just keeping pace and the increasing compliance burdens means middle-tier providers have little hope. In this environment, service providers need the government to lead the charge and create technology incentives, not compliance sticks, to overcome bandwidth limitations and drive new care models.
We need to be giving the sandwich generation a break and peace of mind, allowing them to seize back quality time with their loved ones, rather than spending unnecessary time worrying about them. AI can fill the gap where humans don’t have funding or time to meet the demand. Rather than becoming a Big Brother, the insights from smart data has been shown to enhance relationships by removing worry about unseen and untracked risks. This then unlocks time to create lasting memories while visiting elderly family members and take the element of worry away.
Our government needs to look towards a future with assistive technology for its aged care sector to give the hardworking sandwich generation a much-needed breather. By doing so, we can be leaders in this space, examples for other countries and societies. And the ultimate winners are our older family members who deserve the best possible care that can be provided.
Jason Waller is the CEO and Managing Director of InteliCare, an AI-based home monitoring solution allowing people to live at home independently.