The beginningsAged care is an essential support for the most vulnerable and dependent in the Australian community unable to care for themselves or rely on the assistance of unpaid family members. From its origins in the large indoor-relief institutions that developed from 1815 with the creation of the Benevolent Society of New South Wales, systems have been needed to provide support services, to make them accessible to those who need them and to regulate their operation to ensure that they are fit to the task. In practice the reality often falls well short of the ideal.
Without legal support for care recipients and specialised educational and other interventions, there can be no guarantee of the quality of care, the rights of individual residents or protection and recognition for staff.
Mid-century changesFrom the 1950s residential aged care in NSW came to be provided by nursing homes and homes for the aged, or hostels as the large hospitals that had hitherto provided long-term care for older patients began to focus on acute care and specialised medical practice. In 1962 nursing homes became eligible for subsidy from the Commonwealth government, leading to a rapid expansion of poorly regulated institutions. Alongside homes run by the State government and by church-based and charitable institutions, a significant number of homes were opened as businesses. As the for-profit sector soon became the largest sector in the State, the economics and quality of care often appeared to be in conflict. Both funding and staffing were at low levels.
Despite being formally regulated under NSW legislation originally intended for private hospitals, the adequacy and quality of these homes varied greatly. Although the Commonwealth funded residential facilities provided for the sequestration of longterm care, public attention was drawn to them from time to time as scandals involving abuse and neglect drew media attention.
The eightiesUnder the banner of SWAG, the Social Welfare Action Group, a group of social workers, academics and student activists held a major public conference at the University of Sydney in 1981 that helped focus attention on the systemic nature of these problems. This was followed by a well-publicised phone-in on the ‘Abuse of the Elderly’ in March 1982, involving collaboration between SWAG, the Combined Pensioners Association, Redfern Legal Centre and the Australian Consumers Association, and provided with a small subsidy by the NSW government. The phone-in received over 500 calls in a single weekend, the overwhelming majority of them identifying neglect, physical abuse, financial abuse, sexual and emotional abuse in aged care facilities and boarding houses. These allegations and stories were produced in a report titled ‘Prisoners of Neglect’ published by SWAG.
Over the following three years campaigning continued for counter-measures to be taken. The Aged Care Coalition was formed to identify a means of improving the quality of life for older people living in supported accommodation. The coalition was comprised of seven organisations: Redfern Legal Centre; Social Welfare Action Group; Disabled Persons International; NSW Council of Social Service; NSW Combined Pensioners Association; Ethnic Communities Council; and the Australian Consumers Association. Members of the Coalition started visiting aged care organisations to follow up on complaints that kept coming in after the phone-in. Evidence of the abuse noted in the phone-in was provided to the Senate Enquiry on Nursing Homes and Private Hospitals and taken up in national policy debates, over time leading to a range of user rights measures being incorporated into State and later national laws. This activity clearly demonstrated the need for a permanent resource that would fight for the rights of older residents of aged care. The Coalition went on to undertake further research which was auspiced by the Australian Consumers Association and published in the report ‘If Only I’d Known’.
Funding from the NSW and Commonwealth governments was finally negotiated for an independent advocacy service to offer legal advice and education to the aged care industry and the community. This struggle constituted the birth of TARS, the Accommodation Rights Service, launched in March 1986 by Frank Walker, then NSW Minister for Community Services.
The modern eraIn late 2015 the organisation re-branded and changed its name to reflect the full suite of services the organisations currently delivers. After consulting with 70 different stakeholders the name Seniors Rights Service became the new brand of the organisation. In 2017, following careful consideration of future needs and the organisation’s national influence and impact, the organisation resolved to undergo a legal restructure from an incorporated association in NSW to a company limited by guarantee.
Today the organisation not only continues to deliver aged-care advocacy services but also legal services to older people across NSW, legal services to residents of retirement villages in NSW, legal services to older people in strata arrangements as well as rights-based education to community groups right across the state. In 2018 the Older Persons Advocacy Network was formed as a group of state and territory based aged care rights organisations that offer free, independent and confidential support and information to older people seeking or already using Australian Government-funded aged care services. Seniors Rights Service became the NSW member and is also an accredited member of Community Legal Centres NSW. Seniors Rights Service continues to look for new ways to uphold and support the rights of older Australians and provide best practice rights-based services to older Australians.