Ageing Hunter population a health care success story not a crisis

The growing “tsunami” of older people facing Australia in coming decades should be viewed as a triumph of public health rather than a problem, HammondCare Chief Executive Stephen Judd told a Newcastle conference.

Speaking at the Newcastle and Hunter Economic Development Forum, Dr Judd said “living longer provides issues to be tackled but they are no means insuperable”. HammondCare, an independent Christian charity, has recently become a major aged care provider in the Hunter, including opening the region’s first dementia-specific village at Cardiff at a cost of $30 million.

The present 250,000 people over the age of 65 in the Hunter New England Health District region is about 19 per cent of the population – that number is expected to rise to almost 350,000 by 2031, about 25 per cent of the population. A major issue to be faced as a result of an ageing community was added costs for taxpayers, but there were options available to save money.

In one example, Dr Judd estimated that doubling the number of people dying at home and offering better palliative care in nursing homes could save taxpayers $300 million a year. The cost of building new hospitals was “eye watering”, including $1.1 billion for the Northern Beaches Hospital opened last year, $2.2 billion for the Royal Adelaide Hospital and $470 million for the new Maitland Hospital.

“With the number of deaths set to double in the next 40 years, we’ll need the equivalent of an extra 9 new Royal Adelaide Hospitals, 15 new Northern Beaches Hospitals or 22 new Maitland Hospitals in the next 40 years – just for people to die in,” he said.

At the moment just 14 per cent of Australians die at home, less than half the rate of similar countries like Ireland, France, Use and New Zealand.

“For a good safe death in the place where most of us wish to die, we must increase the number of people dying outside of acute hospitals,” he said. Dr Judd also said there were better options now available to assist those living with dementia. The new residential care home in Cardiff – which drew about 500 visitors on its open day - is based around research that demonstrates caring for older people has the best outcomes when it’s done in a small domestic and familiar environment with between 8 and 15 residents in each cottage rather than a large institution.

“Evidence shows that such relationship-focused models of care have better outcomes than medical models,” Dr Judd said. “The cost of providing care in such environments is approximately $13,000 less than in a more institutional environment,” he said. Dr Judd said there were estimates that more than a million Australians would be living with dementia by 2050, including 30,000 in the Hunter but there was “no need to panic” as at best these figures were estimates. “In spite of all the fear and hysterics, current research is showing that the incidence of dementia is not rising at all. Why? Because over the last years cardiovascular health has improved and smoke rates have reduced. Dementia is not inevitable. Prevention is possible. You can do something about it,” he said.

Dr Judd said the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety was likely to result in an exponential increase in compliance oversight into aged care services, even though competition was a more effective means of improving quality. He warned the sector was underfunded with a recent financial analysis showing about 45 per cent of aged care facilities operating at a loss. “That can’t continue. The Federal Government will need to lift its subsidy to aged care, and older people who can afford to will be called on to contribute more,” Dr Judd said.