Wells said the experience had been “a very good and necessary exposure to different people that I hadn’t come across before” in her suburban, middle-class upbringing.
For Deb, even 20 years ago, the biggest challenge for an aged care administrator was finding staff.
“In the office, the first and most pressing problem at all times, always, was trying to fill the roster,” she said.
“We spent probably 80 per cent of our day trying to do that.”
Wells said her discussions with constituents reflected that understaffing had worsened as a problem during the coronavirus pandemic.
A worker she spoke to one Saturday morning told the minister she was due to start her shift at 2pm and 16 people had already called in sick.
The current staffing crisis will put a brake on Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s election pledge to “put the nurses back into nursing homes”.
The government’s Aged Care Amendment (Implementing Care Reform) Bill 2022 has been referred to a Senate inquiry and is due to report by August 31. If passed, it will mandate a registered nurse being on shift in every aged care home around the clock from July 2023.
But the bill provides for an exemption to be granted under yet-to-be-determined criteria to providers unable to find staff.
Wells also introduced legislation almost identical to a bill the former government failed to pass before the election, which will set up a new funding model for the sector to start on October 1 and the first stage of minimum staffing levels.
The Aged Care and Other Legislation Amendment (Royal Commission Response) Bill 2022 is expected to pass in the Senate on Monday, although the Greens are seeking an amendment to remove a provision making providers exempt from prosecution for using physical and chemical restraints. This is unlikely to succeed.
When the ABC Four Corners program that sparked the royal commission aired in 2018, exposing shocking abuse and neglect in aged care, Deb said while she had not witnessed that behavior at the home she worked in, “it doesn’t surprise me that it happens”.
“It’s such a challenging industry,” she said.
Wells said while she was employed as a kitchen hand, she did relief work as a diver- sional therapist, facilitating recreational programs for the residents.
“It demonstrates that clearly there were staff shortages, even then,” she said.
The biggest change the minister saw when visiting aged care homes in her current role, she said, was the dramatic increase in care needs of an aging population and as more Australians delayed going into residential care.
“I’ve noticed more frail people, more bed-bound people now,” she said. “That also speaks to the complexity of … what we need to better address by way of food, for example.”
The government has promised to improve the food being given to residents after the royal commission highlighted disturbingly high rates of malnutrition, with the average home spending just $6 a day per resident on meals.
“You actually need to have the waft and the aroma of food coming from the kitchen to stimulate people’s enzymes and make people hungry and give people a sense of nostalgia,” Wells said.
Asked if her personal connection to the industry gave her a big sense of responsibility for aged care, the minister said: “Huge, and I’m heartened by the PM entrusting me with such a task.”
“I think that people in the aged care sector have been neglected for a long time. And I hope that they understand that, having me being the minister, I actually have some experience of life in the industry.”