National Reconciliation Week is a time for Australians to learn about our shared history, culture and achievements—and to find ways we can contribute to achieving reconciliation, writes Ken Markwell.

Ken Markwell

For me, it’s a time to reflect on how we as a country treat our Indigenous Elders and the gaps and barriers that currently exist in Australia that prevent them from ageing well.

It is widely accepted that how a society treats its elderly is a measure of its humanity. National Reconciliation Week, from May 27 to June 3, provides an opportunity to consider our most vulnerable older Australians, our First Nations Elders, and to measure our progress towards reconciliation by how well we care and look after them. This will be critical in the coming years when Stolen Generations survivors will be aged over 50 years and eligible for aged care support.

Our Elders occupy a unique place in Australia’s history—they are the descendants from the first inhabitants of the land, having developed across millennia a culturally rich, diverse, and unique heritage. Today, Elders play an important role in our communities as cultural knowledge holders and are central to the continuation of our culture.

Be brave, make change

This year’s theme “Be Brave. Make Change.” is a challenge to us all to Be Brave and complete the unfinished business of reconciliation so we can Make Change for all. There is no better place to address the unfinished business of reconciliation than to implement aged care reforms improving access to aged care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The Aged Care Royal Commission expressed concerns that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not “accessing aged care at a rate commensurate with their level of need”. The Royal Commission identified a range of factors for this, including social and economic disadvantage, a lack of culturally safe care, and the intergenerational impacts of colonisation and prolonged discrimination.

Their findings also revealed that long-term health conditions affected 88 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the age of 55 years and that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people “should be receiving proportionately higher levels of aged and health care” than the rest of the population. Yet sadly, we find this is not happening.

Meeting needs of indigenous elders

It is essential that a reformed aged care system meets the changing and diverse needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. There should be a focus on providing services in, or close to, our communities where Elders can remain and keep connection to their Country and culture. We know Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people want to be supported to deliver aged care services for their community—in both design and leadership, as well as service delivery.

Established in 2018, Australian Unity’s dedicated Indigenous Services business provides culturally tailored care and support to Indigenous clients in their local communities. With the aim of addressing some of the significant gaps in holistic wellbeing outcomes faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, we’ve now grown to be the largest home care and disability services provider to this community in New South Wales.

We also aim to be an employer of choice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through our innovative, culturally-appropriate and community-driven approaches, and we’re proud to be one of the largest employers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in New South Wales, with over 300 employees.

The Federal Government’s $572.5 million 2021-22 Budget response to the Aged Care Royal Commission announced measures to improve the aged care experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, increase the capability and viability of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander care organisations, and to grow and foster a skilled and culturally safe workforce.

Co-design

The Indigenous Aged Care Critical Friends Group (IACCFG) was formed to respond to these Government reforms, and to understand their impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, their communities and care providers.

The IACCFG comprises Indigenous aged care providers from across Australia, who provide tailored and culturally appropriate care to First Nations Elders. It is essential that Aboriginal people are genuinely involved in services and programs that have an impact on their lives ensuring Indigenous people are genuinely engaged in the co-design of polices and funding that directly affects them.

National Reconciliation Week provides the opportune time to reflect on where we have come as a nation and, more importantly, the work we still need to do to achieve reconciliation which includes a fostering a care system for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who need aged care that shows respect for our culture and our heritage.

It’s imperative that our mob be involved in services and programs that have an impact on our lives and I look forward to working with IACCFG, the aged care services industry and the government to best identify and meet the needs of Indigenous people. If we get aged care right for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we will get it right for everyone.

*Ken Markwell is a Mununjhali man and executive general manager for indigenous services at Australian Unity

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