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Bushfire affected aged care facilities and services facing challenges

The last few weeks has seen horrific news of towns decimated and lost lives, houses and animals across Australia.

The worst affected bushfire areas include New South Wales and Victoria, and Kangaroo Island in South Australia. [Source: Shutterstock]
The worst affected bushfire areas include New South Wales and Victoria, and Kangaroo Island in South Australia. [Source: Shutterstock]

The current horrific bushfire crisis, hitting communities across Australia, has shocked the nation, however little has been said about how aged care organisations and services have been affected.

Just like other residents and businesses in hard hit areas, aged care facilities and services, together with their residents, have faced a big battle with poor telecommunications, issues with consumable supply chains, and some have even had to fully evacuate sites for the safety of their staff and residents, all because of the dangers of a raging fire.

How has aged care coped during this national emergency?

This bushfire season started well back in September 2019, with the severity of fire season hitting around New Years and continuing into 2020.

A number of facilities were evacuated across the country during the height of the bushfires.

Non-for profit aged care peak body, Aged & Community Services Australia (ACSA), believes roughly 19-20 aged care providers have evacuated nationwide.

Many of these bushfire affected aged care organisations have been receiving ongoing support from peak bodies, including ACSA, Leading Age Services Australia (LASA) and Seniors Rights Service, in combination with emergency services and the wider community.

Tim Hicks, General Manager of Policy and Advocacy at LASA, says, “We know that in recent weeks many of [our members] have been affected both personally and professionally by the unprecedented and ongoing bushfire crisis that Australia is facing.

“Over the past few days, our State Managers and Member Support Officers have been checking in with Members in the most directly affected areas to offer assistance.

“So far we are not aware of any member services that have been destroyed, but we know of a number who have been forced to evacuate or who remain in a state of high alert.

“Members have highlighted the amazing commitment of their staff to the needs of their clients, often regardless of risks to their own property and safety.”

Mr Hicks adds that many services were having staffing issues due to transport difficulties or staff having their own houses directly affected by fires.

He mentioned that services outside the direct fire grounds were experiencing many issues with supply chains broken and air quality dropping dramatically due to the smoke.

However, Mr Hicks says LASA is proud to see how organisations and their staff have reacted during the bushfires.

ACSA agrees with LASA’s comments, adding that the aged care industry has been very prepared for emergency events like these bushfires and have robust bushfire management systems in place.

Patricia Sparrow, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of ACSA, says their members have been managing through the bushfires even though there have been many difficulties.

“We know that communities experience significant disruption and that our members have got specific challenges related to supporting vulnerable people and ensuring the supply of consumables and requirement of daily living and medical and clinical care,” says Ms Sparrow.

“One of the most significant issues at the moment for residential aged care providers is whether they evacuate or stay. Most of them have various arrangements and systems in place for that.

“Around many concerns, the workforce is a key one to talk about, because staff have their own families and properties impacted, or sometimes they can’t get to work because the roads are cut off.”

ACSA will continue to provide support during the recovery stages after the bushfires die down.

However, Ms Sparrow says that Australia wide, both corporate and community, has been incredibly generous with their time, donations and support.

“It’s always fabulous, isn’t it? During times of unprecedented disaster in Australia, to see people wanting to make sure that we are offering support and assisting, I think it all gives us an uplift. It’s really hard to comprehend the scale of what is happening at the moment,” adds Ms Sparrow.

To find out more about aged care and bushfires, read our story on how Fresh Hope Care and IRT Group managed their facilities located on the NSW fire ground.

Keeping people informed and connected

In New South Wales, Senior Rights Service has been providing support to people during the difficult bushfire season, including reassuring families that their parents or elderly friends and neighbours are safe.

Pat Joyce, Manager of the Aged Care Advocacy Team at Senior Rights Service, says, “Sometimes families are disjointed and haven’t had contact in a while. They might know their parents are in an aged care home in some area and haven’t had contact with them or other family members, and they just want to find out where they are and if they are safe.”

Ms Joyce adds that Senior Rights Service can also help direct people to counsel or legal aid in your area.

“From an aged care point of view, the guidelines are pretty straight forward. They are responding appropriately and everyone is sticking together,” says Ms Joyce.

“Aged care providers have a responsibility, and they know that and are handling it very well, on looking after their [residents] and evacuating them successfully and getting them the help they need.”

Information for consumers:

If you have been impacted by the Victorian fires, head to the Emergency Victorian Government emergency website, or if you have been affected by the New South Wales fires, call the Disaster Welfare Assistance Line on 1800 018 444.

Otherwise, if you have been impacted by any national bushfire, head to the Department of Human Services here

Information for providers: 

The Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission has stated that during the bushfire emergencies around the country, they are making sure that accreditation and regulation activities that are scheduled will be managed with the current weather events in mind.

The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety has announced that any providers affected by the fires, that were contacted prior to Christmas with a ‘Notice to Give’ in January, should contact the Commission. Contact [email protected] or go through LASA on [email protected].

The Department of Health has publicised processes for emergency approval of applications from residential care providers for residential respite during the current emergency.

Home Care Providers are also reminded that they cannot use Home Care Packages (HCP) funding for emergency food and accommodation.

Service providers can find vacancies or resources during the bushfire emergency through the Australian Government Department of Health in each state. These phone lines are monitored at all times:

NSW and ACT - 1800 852 649

VIC and TAS - 1800 078 709

SA - 1800 288 475 

QLD - 1800 300 125 

WA - 1800 733 923

NT – 1800 355 34

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