Kim Farrar’s grief over her mum’s death earlier this year is complicated by lingering anger about how the aged care system let her down.
Almost 60 seniors are housed in NT hospitals because of a lack of aged care facilities
NT Health Minister Natasha Fyles says the government will deliver a new dementia unit in Darwin within two years
The NT government has new federal funding for 60 aged care beds
A chronic lack of aged care facilities in the Top End saw both her parents spend long stretches in the Royal Darwin Hospital.
Jim and Eileen Farrar owned and managed the family’s cattle station south of Darwin and later worked at the Nightcliff butcher.
But in their golden years, when the couple faced serious struggles with dementia and stroke, the support they needed wasn’t available.
“The hospital is no place for aged care,” Ms Farrar said.
Jim spent nearly five months in hospital waiting for an aged care bed. Eileen was in a ward for more than a year.
Almost 60 other families in the Northern Territory are going through the same ordeal, with 57 aged care patients housed in NT hospitals.
“We really need to do something for our [senior] Territorians, we’ve got to take care of them. They need to have dignity in their later years when they’re on their end journey.”
Hospital strained, NT population ageing
The issue is exacerbating problems in the NT’s over-stretched hospital system.
There have been three “code yellows” at Royal Darwin Hospital in the past year, which are called when patient numbers exceed capacity.
The NT government has said the high number of hospital beds needed for aged care has played a part in the overcrowding crises.
The impact on the health department’s budget is also significant.
Sub-acute hospital beds are estimated to cost the government $2,000 a day.
Sue Shearer from the NT’s Council on the Ageing says the highest price is paid by those unable to access aged care services before they die, and their families.
“It’s a really sad situation, they haven’t got a choice,” she said.
“If you’re level four, unfortunately it’s very high needs, [it’s likely] you’ll end up in either the Royal Darwin Hospital, the Alice Springs Hospital or the Katherine Hospital.”
Support providers expect waiting lists to grow as the aged care population increases.
Joanne Kovac’s company Golden Glow cares for senior Territorians ageing in their homes with the help of federally-funded home care packages.
She said a shortage of aged care beds had left carers struggling to access the respite care they need.
“Being able to get an empty bed in one of the nursing homes for them to have respite is difficult.”
The federal government said its new residential aged care funding model — released in response to the aged care royal commission — would increase incentives for providers to offer residential respite services.
It’s also changing the way it allocates aged care beds, with a new system to be launched in 2024.
It means there will be no new beds until then, but the federal health department said there was room for growth in the system, with funding for 110 new aged care beds allocated to NT providers, including 60 beds sought by the NT government.
Health Minister Natasha Fyles said the NT government would step in to deliver a new, specialised dementia unit for Darwin.
“We were successful in provisionally receiving 60 beds, particularly to focus on dementia care,” Ms Fyles said.
“The department of health is actively looking at what they can do to deliver those beds — where would we do it and how would we deliver that.”
It’s an unusual move that has been done quietly.
But Ms Fyles said the NT government recognised the urgent need for care and would work — possibly with the private sector — to fill a significant gap in services.
“Generally it takes around three to four years from when a provisional aged care bed is provided by the Commonwealth to the construction and that bed coming online, but we can’t afford to wait that long,” she said.
No funding has yet been committed for what Ms Fyles believes would need to be a purpose-built facility and no site has been identified.
But the minister said she was confident it would open within the next two years.
For Kim Farrar, the government intervention is welcome news, but overdue.
“I think that it’s time that we did something for aged care in the territory, and we did something that wasn’t about profit driven. Because that’s where it’s about with these nursing homes,” she said.