Making Ageing Mainstream

Imagine if we lived in a Western Australia where, rather than seeing older people and, by extension, the aged care sector, as a burden, we saw them as an enormous social and economic opportunity?   It’s pretty easy sell when you look at the fundamentals, particularly in the context of considering the diversification of the Western Australian economy away from mining to even out those booms and busts.

The aged care sector is a well-established service industry facing a decades long tsunami of demand with a huge requirement for capital investment and for workforce at all levels.  In fact, ACIL Allen has estimated that the sector will grow twice as fast as the WA economy over the next ten years.  The sector already makes employment contribution equivalent to the total number of people directly employed by Rio, Tinot, BHP, FMG and Woodside combined.  And what’s more, for every $1 in federal government funding, the sector returns $2.11 in benefits to Western Australia, more than MetroNet over 20 years.

So why is the sector is not supported in Western Australia like it should be, given the clear social and economic impact it brings and the fundamental importance of its mission to the Western Australian community?

Let’s face it.  There’s a brand issue here.  The sector is seen as boring, slow-moving and a drain on the economy.  In our mainstream Australian culture, there has been a view since the early days of colonisation that older people are burdens to society.  We’re desperate not to get OLD.  So desperate that, unlike other forms of prejudice, we choose to ‘other’ a group most of us will one day join.

What is striking is the disparity between reality and the brand.  My own experience is that the sector is a vibrant, innovative, fast-paced heavy hitter in a landscape where rolling reform, ridiculously tight funding envelopes, rapidly changing demographics and an extraordinarily rigid and aggressively policed regulatory framework are the norm.  Providers have no choice but to innovate and to innovate regularly.

However, no matter how exciting the sector is to work in or how many opportunities we can identify,  the ‘brand issue’ will bring us undone if we’re not careful.  This is because, in addition to tragic consequences at an individual level, ‘othering’ also has significant consequences at a systemic and political level.  I’ll give you two examples:

Firstly, it begets a lack of political will in the face of difficult decisions and trade-offs which are unavoidable as our population ages.  We saw this recently after the Royal Commission into Aged Care when the federal government dodged an opportunity to bring about transformational change by handing down a budget which wholly ignored the Commission’s most compelling recommendation– that older people receive care as and when they need it. 

Secondly, it is creating a workforce crisis.  As covered in my last article for the Business News, the Committee for Economic Development of Australia has estimated that there will be a shortfall of 110,000+ aged care workers by 2030 (400,000 shortage by 2050) if the things don’t change.  There are many reasons for this but most of them can be traced to federal government’s funding mechanism for aged care, and, you guessed it, the low status the broader community affords these very important people.

When the system fails to recognise the value of the people it serves or the people who make the cogs turn, our older people suffer.  What’s more, it won’t be the boomers who bear the brunt of this.  The first Gen X’ers are only ten years off retirement and it will be them and those after them that will pay the price of a broken system.  Or not?  We have an unbelievable, once in a lifetime opportunity to harness the Western Australian aged care sector and leverage significant social impact and economic growth with policy and planning that puts seniors and an ageing population front of centre.  The time to understand this and do something about it is now – before the juggernaut of population ageing hits us with full force.