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Blue Care

Blue Care started out as the Blue Nursing Service, an outreach initiative of the members of the congregation of the Methodist Mission at West End in inner Brisbane. The first house call by a ‘Blue Nurse’ (so named because of the colour of her uniform) was logged on 24 August 1953 when Sister Olive Crombie travelled by tram to tend to a patient. Since then the organisation has come under the aegis of UnitingCare Queensland, the health and community care arm of the Uniting Church in Australia, Queensland Synod and it changed its name to its current Blue Care in 1999 to better reflect the diversity of compassionate caring services offered.

Today Blue Care has some 260 facilities in 80 towns and villages across Queensland, from the far west – Goondiwndi and Cloncurry – to isolated communities way up on Thursday Island as well as metro Brisbane, offering a wide range of services to support people in their homes, in local community centres, in residential aged care facilities and in retirement villages.

The diverse demographics of the state mirror the national situation, says Executive Director Robyn Batten. She would know – she is also on the board of Aged & Community Services Australia (ACSA), the peak body for the independent and not-for-profit sector of the industry. In her current post since the beginning of 2011, she was previously Executive Director of Uniting Aged Care Victoria and Tasmania. Prior to this role, Robyn had been Chief Executive Officer of Dental Health Services Victoria, and Director of Primary Care and Mental Health for Southern Health Victoria.

It is very important to realise the distinctions between different communities and their needs, says Robyn. Hence the development of a care model called Blue Care Tailor Made, introduced a year ago, a “person centred approach, tailor made for individuals but also for communities. When developing our service model we consulted across the state and it was clear that while some components of the service model remain the same [in different regional settings], it plays out in different ways in different communities because of their diversity.” The changes were partly the result of evolution and partly stem from a major consultation exercise that started some 18 months ago. “People wanted a service direction that they could align with that would enable them to see where we were going into the future.”

The Blue Care Tailor Made model has six key components: Connecting, Wellbeing, Restoring, Caring, Dying with Dignity and Extras. A person can engage with one or several components at any time to receive the combination of care and services that is right for them. It requires carers and staff to think differently, but Robyn believes it helps all parties to meet the challenges of “working and thinking differently, of integrating and forming partnerships, of being innovative and creative.”

Blue Care Tailor Made will enable the organisation to act and react in a more effective and efficient manner to changes in requirements – individual or community – over the next couple of decades as demand for services is growing exponentially. “We believe that whatever happens with governments, if we are totally focussed on building our services around what people want and need, we will be on the front foot and will continue to be relevant,” says Robyn.

It also means there is no need to impose a rigid model on facilities that would limit the effectiveness of care because of the diversity of communities being served by Blue Care’s legions – more than 8,750 staff at the last count. The focus is on wellness and encouraging people “to be everything they can be, so that for as long as possible they can live as they want to, independently. Across Australia, we need to be investing far more into these areas because people can be supported to get their strength back after illness, or recover from depression. At present, most of the aged care funding – most of the health funding in Australia, in fact – is focussed on meeting the needs of people after the event rather than before.”

There also needs to be an increasing concentration on finding ways to reduce the labour-intensiveness of aged care, Robyn agrees. “No question, workforce shortages is one of the major issues confronting aged care across Australia, and it is much more acute in rural and remote areas. It is extremely difficult to get trained staff in remote areas and it is a limiting factor on the services we can provide. As the number of people in aged care increases, the numbers in the workforce are not rising at the same rate. We continue to advocate for higher salaries for our staff.”

She acknowledges that “one day, there may not be enough staff. It is difficult when we are competing against sectors which can pay as much as 20 per cent more.” Blue Care has a long-standing partnership with the University of Queensland which carries out very pragmatic research into a wide variety of aspects of aged care, focussing almost always on establishing and maintaining best practice. “We all concentrate on translating that research into practical programmes,” Robyn explains.

We spoke to Robyn soon after the federal budget in May, in which, she says, the entire aged care topic had largely been ignored. In the current political climate, though, surely even ‘no news’ is good news (or at least, better news than cutbacks)? Far from it. Blue Care, like the rest of the sector, cannot even find out whether current funding is going to be index-linked through the 2013-2014 financial year. “It’s one of the things we are most concerned about. It wasn’t [index-linked] this year and for us that means a gap of some three point five million dollars.” Robyn points out that Blue Care’s staff remuneration rises by three point five per cent per year which represents some seven million dollars and says, “If we don’t get linked we have to cut services by that amount or make other efficiencies.” It’s not even a question of running hard to stand still – Blue Care is sprinting and yet financially sustaining services is very difficult.

Not that the result of September’s election will necessarily dictate a different outcome. “It is very difficult to say whether a change of government would make much difference. The current government’s ‘Living Longer Living Better’ reform programme has not been implemented to this point and it is not clear whether the legislation will go through to implement it. So it’s not clear what will happen to the current government’s reforms.” As for the coalition, “I would say we don’t have enough detail to know what changes would come in aged care strategy.”

No use waiting for the pollies to act, though; Blue Care just gets on with the job. It concentrates on three areas: residential aged care (it has 4,200 residential care beds), retirement living and community care – both centre-based and in people’s homes. The latter service is predominant in regional and rural areas and in many cases Blue Care is the only provider other than the state government services.

The changing demographic landscape of Australia means that by mid-century there will be almost a doubling of retirement-age people. That is a daunting prospect, but Robyn points out another, perhaps even more daunting forecast: a quadrupling of the number of people over 85 years of age and a commensurate increase in those suffering from dementia, a condition that is a prime cause of people coming into contact with the aged care industry. By 2050 there is likely to be a million people across the country with the disease compared to 280,000 at present, and Blue Care has designed a Memory Support programme to review and improve the services it can offer to people with dementia, and provide a consistent approach across all services.

This is a good example of how Blue Care, at 60, remains fit and healthy.

Stem Cells

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April 27, 2018, 9:03 AM AEST

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