Budget 2023 and our aged care crisis: Time to stop short-term thinking and start future proofing the industry

Liam Rawlings
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The aged care sector in New Zealand has been neglected for too long by successive governments, and now, we are starting to see the outcomes of this neglect. Care home closures regularly make the headlines, and sentiment from operators within the industry is grim.

The cost of care has increasingly become unsustainable for many of our elderly, and industry commentators say this has created a “two-class” system within the aged care sector, with standards of care for those who can pay being markedly better than those who can’t. This year’s Budget represents a chance for the Government to change this, and to set up the sector for success in the coming decades.

New Zealand is in the midst of a substantial demographic shift. Like most other developed nations, our birth rate is plummeting, and our population is ageing. According to Stats NZ, in 2020 there were 88,000 Kiwis aged 85 or older and this number is likely to triple in the next 25 years. Despite this, we have continually pushed our aged care sector to the side and ignored the growing crisis that will face our elderly in the coming years and decades.

Despite the importance of aged care – after all, almost all of us will need it eventually - there is a lack of investment in new facilities and technology. This problem is only worsening according to the New Zealand Aged Care Association; by 2048 the country will be short 250,000 workers, and the sector will need 40,000 care beds over the next 20 years. It’s time to stop putting out short-term fires and start developing long term strategic planning for the future beyond incremental funding increases. Failing to do so will only burden our already ailing health system.  

Consideration should also be given to how fostering technology and design innovation in aged care can help ease the pressures faced by not only the sector, but the Government as well. Technology has long been a somewhat elusive component in the care equation for our elderly, but there is no reason why it can’t play a bigger role in our approach.

There are some exciting new technological innovations already at play within the industry – Summerset has completed a six-month pilot programme of PainChek – an AI powered pain assessment tool that detects and scores pain in real time. Bupa Villages and Aged Care NZ have 18 care homes using Emergency Consult - a virtual service that allows Registered Nurses to cover essential and overnight shifts, while not actually having to be on site.

It’s important to remember that while interaction with technology may be challenging for some of our elderly population now, the elderly of the future will have grown up with a technology-integrated lifestyle that will enable them to, for example, attend virtual consults with their doctor, or interact with automated care applications on their phones, which will help diagnose and treat conditions. This will also afford nurses more time to dedicate to patients who can’t use these resources due to severe illness.

Innovative technology solutions also have the potential to revolutionise aged care operations, improving the overall management of facilities and streamlining care services. By automating administrative tasks and freeing up staff time, aged care operators will be able to spend more time and money on delivering better standards of care and to better cater to the individual needs of residents.

Not only should Budget 2023 be the starting point for meaningful investment in aged care, it’s an opportunity for all political parties to come together and agree on a sacrosanct long term strategy for the industry. Failure to do so is a massive disservice to our aged care operators, staff and of course our current and future elderly population.