Squeezed to ‘absolute desperation’

Otago and Southland’s aged residential care is in a desperate position because of staffing shortages and the region's elderly will suffer as a result, operators say.

"We are aware of at least 50 aged residential care beds in our region which have been closed and have no immediate prospect of reopening," Birchleigh Residential Care Centre chief executive Malcolm Hendry said.

"This isn’t operators bleating for higher profits, this is operators pleading to be able to give people the care they need, where they need it ... I have never seen operators as despondent as they are now. They feel completely abandoned."

Last week, Mr Hendry circulated an open letter to all southern aged residential care facilities which called on Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Finance Minister Grant Robertson to recognise and address "the crisis our vulnerable elderly are facing".

Within two days, half of the facilities in Otago and Southland had signed the letter.

"Aged care providers, without exception, are being squeezed to the point of absolute desperation and feelings of hopelessness," Mr Hendry said.

Nationally, the number of aged residential care nurses is 20% below capacity, a shortage driven by higher district health board pay rates, not enough new nurses being trained, and the soon-to-be-lifted Covid border restrictions having largely prevented overseas recruitment.

Birchleigh Residential Care Centre chief executive Malcolm Hendry says his is one of many...
Birchleigh Residential Care Centre chief executive Malcolm Hendry says his is one of many southern aged residential care facilities experiencing a staffing crisis. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Mr Hendry said costs had been rising for a decade without any increase in government funding for its contract with the sector, and the gap between aged residential care nurses and DHB nurses was only going to increase after the pay equity dispute was settled.

"We are looking at an up to $30,000 gap now between a public sector nurse and an aged residential nurse ... that sends a message that our older Kiwis just aren’t valued."

Aged residential care supported proper pay for all nurses and wanted pay parity between all sectors, Mr Hendry said.

"Aged care nurses have to make clinical decisions on a daily basis as to the care of their residents: their workload, if anything, is higher."

Mr Hendry’s letter was sent to all southern members of Parliament, as well as the chairman and chief executive of the Southern District Health Board.

The Birchleigh letter follows hard on the heels of a similar cry for help issued last week by Aged Care Matters, a group of Aged Care Association members.

It surveyed members and found that almost half would be very unlikely to build new beds within the next year, 65% expected to have to stop or restrict new admissions, and a third thought they might need to close facilities.

Michael Parker, the chief executive of one of ACM’s members, Presbyterian Support Southland, said yesterday Mr Hendry’s letter was another demonstration of how dire things were in the sector.

"Covid has exacerbated the issue. On top of the immigration settings and the challenge of losing nurses to the DHBs, we now have Covid in centres which has really put the pressure on and left some organisations wondering if it is worth staying in the business."

Some homes had closed in recent years and Presbyterian Support itself had been compelled to close an uneconomic facility in Gore, Mr Parker said.

"We supported that facility, as a loss-making exercise, for 15 years, for the community, but we were at the stage where we could not do that any more."

Aged residential was now losing enrolled nurses and support workers to DHBs as well as registered nurses, Mr Parker said.

"DHBs have recognised the issue because if we can’t take people the only place for them to end up is back in hospital and they can’t cope with them.

"But the reason we want pay parity is because it is not a level playing field and we just can’t compete."