(Image: Unsplash/Daan Stevens)

At a Queensland hospital last Wednesday, an elderly gentleman wanted to urinate. Politely, he asked the nurse for a bottle, common in hospitals and aged care homes that allow someone to go to the toilet from their bed.

The nurse told the 87-year-old that she was sorry, but there were only two of the $13 bottles for the entire public ward of the hospital. Was it possible for him to wait?

It’s only a little story, and doesn’t involve abuse or neglect or some of the other horrors that underline almost every page of the report into this nation’s care of the aged. But it goes to the heart of the public policy problem in 2021, whether it’s a state Labor government or a federal Coalition one.

Often it’s the little things that point to bigger problems. This is a big public hospital, and funding is so short that there are only two urination bottles for several people to share. The funding of our aged care — from facilities, to staff, to meals and individual care — is criminal, and Scott Morrison’s $450 million promise is just a drop in the ocean.

The royal commission has shown how home care, residential aged care, services and staff are all impacted by a system that is substandard and unsafe — an indictment on any community that claims to value its most vulnerable.

The commission’s 148 recommendations will serve as the roadmap we need to navigate a new system where our elderly are given back their dignity and allowed to live their final years with optimism and pride.

The government’s immediate promise to create a new act and commit immediate funds is welcome. But those alone won’t fix a system that is so broken that it has been the subject of a carousel of inquiries over recent decades.

What aged care needs is a heart. It needs our politicians to understand the pain of families who grapple with question after question on form after form required by aged care homes.

It needs politicians to wake up each morning wondering when their ailing parent will finally get a call that a place has been found for home care services or aged care placement.

It needs politicians to understand the empathy our aged care workers put into long days. It needs politicians to see and cry and be enraged by the lack of care afforded to some of our aged in the final years of life.

It’s easy to sit in Canberra and throw money around. But good policies comes from understanding those who are subject to them. It comes from action, not glib lines like “the inquiry we needed to have” and a commission that was a “harrowing process”. Tell us something we don’t know.

The way this has been handled is painfully familiar. Ignore the problem until you can’t any longer. Hold a review or two, maybe an inquiry. Ignore that. Promise funding, particularly if an election beckons. Pass the buck.

Being elected makes someone an MP, not an advocate for a better community. Becoming prime minister makes someone better at rising through the ranks than someone else; it doesn’t make for a good leader.

Across aged care — as well as child safety, employment, public health, crime and countless other areas — we need leadership that treats those at the centre of policy with empathy.

And denying a grandfather a $13 bottle to urinate in because our public health system can’t afford to help him shows more than a policy vacuum. It shows a lack of heart.

Have you or a family member had negative experiences with aged care? Let us know by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.

Peter Fray

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