For the last five years, Mary Dadbalag, aged in her 90s and confined to a wheelchair, has been living in a tent on a verandah in the Northern Territory remote community of Jibena.
- A disabled Aboriginal elder living is in tent because she cannot reach the bathroom at her family home
- Remote homelands residents are falling through the cracks of aged care provision
- The federal government is considering a royal commission recommendation to improve bush aged care
For the last three years, her granddaughter Jacqueline Phillips has been knocking on every government service provider’s door she can think of asking for help to get her grandmother a bedroom built with a toilet attached.
She said her grandmother is living in the tent at the edge of what she described as a “chicken house” because she can’t get to the nearest toilet 20 metres away over grass in her wheelchair, but she can shuffle to the edge of the verandah.
“My grandmother lives in a tent, due to her disability caused by arthritis and a nerve syndrome which makes her feet swell,” she said.
“The dwelling she lives in is slightly elevated so she can’t get into the bedroom in her wheelchair, or the bathroom.
“So when she’s in a hurry to go to the toilet, she just has to scoot off to the verandah and do a pee over the side.
“When she can give us warning, we’re able to put her in the wheelchair and wheel her out to the long drop toilets which are about 20 metres away from the main dwelling.”
Improved conditions could help grandmother stay on homeland
Ms Phillips is an Indigenous cultural awareness trainer in the Northern Territory’s largest remote community Maningrida, 45 kilometres west of Jibena on the Western Arnhem Land coast.
Jibena is one of 30 tiny homeland communities where many people prefer to live on their traditional land, rather than moving into the main community, where housing is chronically overcrowded.
Ms Dadbalag doesn’t know her exact age, but Ms Phillips said she has vivid memories from throughout her life in the bush including watching World War II Japanese bombers dive low over the sandflats to fire at her and other family members out collecting shellfish at low tide.
“Her living situation now isn’t good,” Ms Phillips said.
“It’s upsetting, not healthy and not hygienic. Like, her tent is just right next to where she does her toilets.
Ms Phillips said she has been appealing to both Northern Territory and federal government service providers.
“But I am always just running into a brick wall with lack of money,” she said.
Community aged care centre unable to improve home
Ms Dadbalag went to live in Maningrida’s 10-bed community-controlled Mala’la aged care for a few years but decided to return to Jibena.
“At the aged care, her spiritual wellbeing was very poor, she was always depressed because she really wanted to live on the homeland where her children are and her grandchildren. She grew up in the bush and so she just wanted to be out in the bush,” Ms Phillips said.
The Mala’la Aboriginal Health Service’s chief executive Ray Matthews said the facility and the outreach program staff run in Maningrida is adequately funded.
He said the local board has made it as attractive as possible for their Aboriginal residents by doing things including putting bush tucker on the menu and organising trips to remote homelands to enable elders to visit their traditional country.
But Mr Matthews said it was not funded to service residents on the homelands, apart from being able to supply some pieces of equipment like wheelchairs.
“We can provide the equipment that may assist Mary to live at home on her homeland, but for major modifications [to houses], you’re looking at major capital expenditure and that’s another totally different bucket of money from another government department not associated with Mala’la,” he said.
“But the choice of an older person to live their life out on homelands should be respected.”
Maximising connection to country as people age
The aged care royal commission recommended the federal government ensure Indigenous people get high-quality care regardless of where they live, to maximise the connection with their country.
The federal Health Department told the ABC the Government is committed to that and will respond in its forthcoming budget.
It said remote residents can get some federal funding for home modifications, like the installation of a suitable toilet, under its Commonwealth Home Support Program, but that the Northern Territory government has responsibility for its own remote homelands.
The Northern Territory Families Department told the ABC it has provided Ms Dadbalag with bathroom handrails.
“We are working with the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation and traditional owners to deliver appropriate solutions to Ms Dadbalag,” a spokesperson said.
“Substantial additional resources are required to improve housing standards and wraparound services for aged care residents in homelands.”
Ms Phillips is worried her grandmother may continue to fall through the cracks.
“There needs to be better aged care services, especially for the people on the homelands,” she said.
“We really need the federal government to listen to the very remote communities and provide that service, it’s human rights.”