Nurses: the missing link in our aged care crisis

Date: 24/07/2002

Governments and the nursing profession need to provide incentives for experienced nurses to work into their older years if our health care system is to cope with an ageing population, a leading aged care expert said today.

Professor John McCallum, Dean of the College of Social and Health Sciences at the University of Western Sydney, said the chronic shortage of nurses means we will be increasingly reliant on older nurses to take care of us in our golden years.

"The future of Australia's health care system lies not with Australia's youth, but with our ageing babyboomers," said Professor McCallum.

"Fewer students are taking up nursing as a career and many nurses are leaving our hospitals due to their frustrations with the quality of work life, staff shortages and low pay.

"Two-thirds of the current aged care workforce is already aged 40 plus. This means we will be relying more and more on our older, more experienced nurses to maintain our health care system."

According to Professor McCallum, our ageing population is already starting to place our health system under strain.

"12.6% of Australians are aged 65 plus, however they account for 36% of this country's health care costs," he said.

"That's double the GP visits (24%), triple the hospital stays (32.5%) and quadruple the patient stays (47.7%) than the rest of the population.

"The Federal Government's 'Intergenerational Report' argues that we will require an extra $84 billion per year to cover the cost of ageing in 40 years.

"However only $22 billion of this is allocated to aged care and pensions. Most of the money will be used to pay for increased health costs, in particular pharmaceuticals.

"What will be left to pay the nurses who need to care for our senior citizens? Where is the incentive to keep them in the system? The nursing profession needs to work together with Government to direct their funding to the right areas and develop a health care system that can cope with the pressures of an ageing population."

Professor McCallum said our increased life expectancies have brought a host of new challenges for nurses.

"We now live in the age of 'substitute disease' - those diseases which result from a decrease or prevention of other diseases. For example, our success with preventing cardiovascular disease means we can expect about 1 in 4 people aged 85 plus that we save from heart attacks to develop dementia," said Professor McCallum.

"The elderly also have co-existing diseases such as high blood pressure, arthritis and moderate dementia. This will require nurses to have new strategies of care that cope with these multiple impacts and are sensitive to interactions.

"The chronic nursing shortage is neglected in treasury discussions of the ageing crisis and the nursing profession doesn't have a unified position on this.

"Care is more than just than dispensing drugs. By working together, governments and the nursing profession can look at alternative ways to maintain the workforce, such as using older nurses, that will help cope with our ongoing age care crisis."

Professor McCallum is presenting his paper Ageing and Health: Implications for Nurses at the 13th International Nursing Research Congress in Brisbane today at 9am.

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