Our ailing aged care system shows you can’t skimp on nursing care

The royal commission has scrutinised aged care staffing.
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Apil Gurung, University of the Sunshine Coast and Samantha Edwards, University of the Sunshine Coast

Staff shortages and a lack of training have once again emerged as key issues underpinning the nation’s aged care crisis, as the aged care royal commission hears testimony in Perth.

Registered nurse Noleen Hausler shared the experience of her 98-year-old father, Clarence, who was force-fed, assaulted and had a serviette held over his nose by a carer who was later convicted of aggravated assault.

Aside from this criminal behaviour, Ms Hausler said the standards at her father’s aged care facility declined after a new operator reduced staffing levels and employed carers with little training. Call bells went unanswered, she said, and incontinence pads were rationed.

Ms Hausler has called for increased ratios of registered nurses in aged care facilities, and better training and registration for carers.

Under-staffing and inadequate training have long been problems in Australia’s aged care facilities, with aged care facilities employing fewer registered and enrolled nurses and more carers who have lower levels of training.




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Who does what in aged care?

A registered nurse (RN) provides nursing leadership and clinical supervision in aged care facilities. They are skilled clinicians who can respond to medical emergencies and are qualified to carry out assessments.

Registered nurses undergo three years of undergraduate study at university and are registered with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) in order to practise in health care setting across Australia.

An enrolled nurse (EN) conducts observations and assessments, and collaborates with and seeks assistance from the registered nurse in charge. Enrolled nurses are registered with AHPRA and undergo an 18-month diploma of nursing at TAFE.

Finally, care workers form the bulk of the aged care workforce and perform tasks such as showering, dressing and feeding residents. Titles for carers vary and include assistant in nursing, personal care worker, personal care attendant, and aged care worker, to name a few.

Care workers are required to complete a certificate III-level course, which can take up to six or seven months, but don’t require registration.

Carers cost less than nurses

There is no clear legislation requiring a certain number of registered nurses, enrolled nurses and carers to be on duty at certain point in time. The Aged Care Act 1997 is open to interpretation, so aged care providers are largely free to set their own staffing levels.

As a result, in recent years aged care operators have recruited proportionally fewer registered and enrolled nurses and increasing numbers of unregulated carers.

Residents in aged care have complex needs, and those looking after them need to be equipped.
From shutterstock.com

The changing make up of the aged care workforce is mainly influenced by economic advantage: hiring carers is cheaper than hiring registered or enrolled nurses.

It can also be difficult to find enough nurses. Nurse retention in aged care has been a major challenge for the industry because aged care providers often pay lower wages than hospitals.

But nursing care is worth the investment

Research shows having a greater number of registered nurses increases patients’ well-being and safety. Better staffing levels allow nurses to spend more time caring for residents and reduces the likelihood that vital information is overlooked.

Adequately staffing aged care facilities has economic benefits by reducing staff turnover related to burnout and job dissatisfaction.

Employing skilled registered nurses in aged care facilities can also save the health system money by reducing the number of costly hospital admissions that arise because residents can’t be adequately cared for in their aged care facility.




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Aged care residents often have mental health issues, face cognitive decline or dementia, take multiple medications each day, are physically frail, and often have multiple chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis or asthma.

But it’s difficult to meet the needs of these patients with the current aged care staffing and skill levels.

More than 50% of the residents in a residential aged care facilities have some form of dementia, for example, yet more than 50% of aged care workers have no dementia training.

Substituting registered nurses with lesser skilled carers has meant tasks such as medication management have been assigned to carers in some aged care facilities, despite this being a high-risk task that requires a high level of skill and experience.

What are the solutions?

Carers currently make up around 70% of the aged care workforce. We need to reset aged care staffing levels and ensure we have the right skill sets, which industry bodies suggest is: 30% registered nurses, 20% enrolled nurses and 50% care workers.

It’s also time to professionalise caring roles with better regulation and the introduction of carer registration.

Registration would clarify carers’ roles and allow only the delegation of tasks which are deemed safe for carers to carry out within their scope of practice. It would also ensure minimum training standards are met and that quality and safety is maintained.

The aim is not to vilify carers, who are the backbone of our aged care system, but rather to highlight the need for the right level of training, education and support to strengthen the aged care workforce and complement the care provided by registered and enrolled nurses.

Finally, we also need to increase the number of registered and enrolled nurses in the aged care workforce with guided pathways to attract and retain nurses. Well-structured graduate nurse programs, for instance, can provide support and guidance to the graduates who are considering a career in aged care.




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The Conversation


Apil Gurung, Lecturer, University of the Sunshine Coast and Samantha Edwards, Lecturer in Nursing, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Stressed and exhausted caregivers need better support

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Up to 80 per cent of community care for older adults is provided by unpaid informal caregivers. In the absence of government supports, many of them struggle with exhaustion, stress and depression.
(Shutterstock)

Jenny Ploeg, McMaster University and Maureen Markle-Reid, McMaster University

When Brenda retired from paid work, it was like a care-giving tsunami.

Her dad and stepmom moved in with her, her husband had a heart attack and she became a grandma — all within six months.

Brenda is one of 8.1 million Canadians who have taken on challenging unpaid roles — as informal caregivers for people living with physical or cognitive conditions or chronic life-limiting illnesses.

Her stress increased as her parents started to deteriorate physically and mentally. She tried to stay ahead of the ever-changing situation, but became exhausted after her dad started waking in the middle of the night and getting dressed to go out.

She looked on the internet for support in her care-giving role.

As co-scientific directors of the Aging, Community and Health Research Unit at McMaster University, we are working together with older adults with multiple conditions and caregivers like Brenda to promote optimal aging at home.

Our research shows that current health and social services do not address the complex needs of older adults or their family caregivers.

It also suggests that web-based interventions may help reduce depressive symptoms, anxiety and stress or distress for these caregivers.

Who cares for the caregivers?

Older adults with chronic conditions rely heavily on their family caregivers to coordinate their care, monitor medication and accompany them to appointments.

In fact, 70 to 80 per cent of community care for older adults is provided by informal caregivers as opposed to formal care providers.

Increasingly, these older adults have multiple chronic conditions (MCC), such as dementia and stroke, not just one. And as this prevalence of multiple conditions increases worldwide, it’s associated with poor health and higher health-care use and costs.

Women represent a slight majority of Canadian caregivers at 54 per cent and spend more time per week on caregiving than males.

Caregivers report that they do not receive adequate home care or respite services to support them in their roles. There are, for instance, long wait lists for long-term care beds.

Research shows that caregivers spent $12.6 million in one year on expenses related to their roles.
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While caregiving is rewarding, many informal caregivers experience stress and anxiety leading to their own poor mental and physical health.

Informal caregivers feel overwhelmed with multiple requests for their time and frustrated when they can’t plan too far in advance.

“I felt like I was spending a lot of time waiting. Waiting for people to get ready. Waiting for people to get back to me. Waiting at appointments,” said Brenda.

Some reach a crisis point and leave their loved ones in the hospital emergency room because they are unable to continue in their caregiving role. This contributes to an already overburdened acute-care system.

Web-based supports can help

We conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis that examined the impact of different types of internet-based interventions on caregiver mental health outcomes.

One example of such a web-based support is My Tools 4 Care, developed by our colleague Dr. Wendy Duggleby at the University of Alberta and her team.

We found evidence that internet-based interventions had a positive effect on reducing depressive symptoms, stress, distress and anxiety in caregivers of adults with a chronic condition.

Internet-based interventions reduce caregiver depression and anxiety.
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The most effective category of online support was information and/or education with or without professional psychological support. Information provided together with combined peer and professional psychological support was also effective, to a lesser extent.

However, although many websites for caregivers provide valuable information, we found that they need to be easier to navigate and use.

Caregivers in our study made recommendations to improve the content and format of online resources. Suggestions included: Providing personalized information about local resources; sharing practical caregiving tips and strategies; creating opportunities to connect online with other caregivers; and having user-friendly features that are easy to navigate.

Nova Scotia leads the way

Caregiving comes with costs to the caregivers — to their health and to their finances.

Half of caregivers are between 45-65 years of age, in the peak of their earning years. They often take time off work to take their loved ones to appointments, and some must leave work early when the health of their loved one worsens. Out-of-pocket expenses for equipment, medications and parking can also be expensive.

Research shows that caregivers spent $12.6 million in one year on expenses related to their roles.

Nova Scotia is the only province in Canada that has a monthly income or allowance for caregivers, known as the Caregiver Benefit Program. Financial assistance from the government for caregivers in other parts of Canada mainly take the form of federal tax credits and insurance benefits.

And yet caregivers make vitally important but often unrecognized contributions to our society. It is estimated that they contribute $25 billion in unpaid labour.

Change is urgently needed to better support our caregivers.The Conversation

Jenny Ploeg, Professor, School of Nursing, McMaster University and Maureen Markle-Reid, Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Person Centred Interventions for Older Adults with Multimorbidity and their Caregivers, School of Nursing, McMaster University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Commonly prescribed medications linked to rise in harmful side effects in dementia

News Release
July 2018 | United Kingdom – Commonly prescribed medications linked to rise in harmful side effects in dementia

Medications which are commonly prescribed to people with dementia have been linked to an increase in harmful side-effects, research involving the University of Exeter has concluded.

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The research, presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) examined the impact of opioid-based painkillers or a class of sleep medication known as Z drugs (zolpidem, zopiclone and zaleplon). They are prescribed to an estimated 200,000 with dementia living in care homes across the UK in total.

In the opioid painkiller research, a team from the University of Exeter, King’s College London and the University of Bergen highlight a tripling in harmful side effects related to the use buprenorphine in people with dementia, compared to those on a placebo. Researchers also identified a mechanism that may be causing the problem.

In a randomized controlled trial of 162 Norwegian care home residents, the team found a significant rise in side effect such as personality changes, confusion and sedation, which can seriously impact people’s lives in dementia. The trial team, led by the University of Bergen, studied 162 people from 47 Norwegian care homes who had advanced dementia and significant depression. In those who were assigned buprenorphine as part of their treatment pathway, harmful side-effects more than tripled. The researchers also found that those taking buprenorphine were significantly less active during the day.

In the Z-drugs research, the team compared data for 2,952 people with dementia who were newly prescribed the medication with data for 1,651 who were not – in order to evaluate the benefits and harms of the medicines. They found that people who take Z-drugs are more likely to fracture a bone than those who do not. Bone fractures are related in turn to an increased risk of death in people with dementia.

Researchers are now calling for studies to examine alternative non-drug approaches to treating pain and insomnia, and appropriate dosing of painkillers such as buprenorphine for people with dementia. Clive Ballard, Professor of Age-Related Diseases at the University of Exeter Medical School, said: “Research into antipsychotics highlighted that they increased harmful side effects and death rates in people with dementia. This compelling evidence base helped persuade everyone involved in the field to take action, from policy makers to clinicians, reducing prescribing by 50 per cent. We now urgently need a similar concerted approach to opioid-based painkillers and Z-drugs, to protect frail elderly people with dementia from fractures and increased risk of death.”

Importantly, research led by Professor Ballard’s team and also presented at the conference also gives insight into the mechanism of why people with dementia are more susceptible to opioid-based painkillers, suggesting they over-produce the body’s natural opioids.

The study treating arthritis in Alzheimer’s mice found increased sensitivity to the opioid-based painkiller morphine in mice with Alzheimer’s disease compared to those without. Those with Alzheimer’s disease responded to a much lower dose to ease pain, and experienced more adverse effects when the dose was increased to a normal level. Looking into this further the study found that the Alzheimer’s mice produced more of the body’s natural endogenous opioids such as endorphins. The study, presented as a poster at AAIC, also concludes that dosing of opioid-based painkillers urgently needs to be reviewed in people with dementia to enable safe and effective treatment of pain, and prevent unnecessary harm and deaths.

Posters presented at conference have not yet been through the journal peer review process.

Watch carers talk about their experience of the WHELD training. To find out more about our world-leading dementia research, follow #ExeterDementia and @Clive_Ballard on Twitter, or visit the Exeter Dementia website.

Just ten minutes of social interaction a day improves wellbeing in dementia care

News Release
July 2018 | United Kingdom – Just ten minutes of social interaction a day improves wellbeing in dementia care

An e-learning programme that trains care home staff to engage in meaningful social interaction with people who have dementia improves wellbeing and has sustained benefits.

couple elderly man old
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The average person with dementia in a care home experiences just two minutes of social interaction each day, researchers found. They also showed that out of 170 available training programmes for nursing home staff, only three are evidence-based – none of which improve quality of life.

The Wellbeing and Health for people with Dementia (WHELD) programme trained care home staff to increase social interaction from two minutes a day to ten, combined with a programme of personalised care. It involves simple measures such as talking to residents about their interests and involving them in decisions around their care.

The Improving Staff Attitudes and Care for People with Dementia e-Learning (tEACH) study, conducted by the University of Exeter Medical School and King’s College London in partnership with the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE), was presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2018. The study involved 280 residents and care staff in 24 care homes over nine months.

Carers took part in an e-learning programme based on the WHELD training, with or without Skype supervision. They compared outcomes to usual care. Both treatment arms improved resident wellbeing and staff attitudes to person-centred care. The Skype supported arm continued to deliver improved resident wellbeing four months after the trial was completed.

Joanne McDermid, of King’s College London, who presented the research, said: “Care home staff are under a lot of pressure – it’s a really tough job. It’s a challenging environment for both residents living with dementia and staff. Our programme moved care staff to see dementia through the eyes of those who are living it. We found a simple approach, delivered as e-learning, improves staff attitudes to care and residents’ wellbeing, ultimately improving lives for people with dementia.

“In a traditionally task -focussed work environment, our programme reminds us of the human side; of the full life experience of those living with dementia in care.”

Professor Clive Ballard, of the University of Exeter Medical School, who led the research, said: “Just take a moment to imagine life with just two minutes of social interaction each day. To accept this is discrimination against people with dementia. We urgently need to do better. Most care home training programmes are not evidence-based. We know our programme works over the long term, and we now know it can be delivered remotely. We now need to roll this out to care homes.”

Watch carers talk about their experience of the WHELD training. To find out more about our world-leading dementia research, follow #ExeterDementia and @Clive_Ballard on Twitter, or visit the Exeter Dementia website.

Older Adults Are Still Likely Underestimating Cognitive Impairment in Their Families

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News release

 Study Finds Racial Differences in Reporting and Overall Trend of Underreporting Cognitive Impairment

An increasing number of older adults are reporting cognitive impairment in their families over the past two decades, according to a new study led by researchers at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing and East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine.

The study, which also finds ethnic and racial differences in reporting cognitive impairment, is published in Preventing Chronic Disease, a journal of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The aging population in the U.S. is growing rapidly, with the number of people age 65 and over in 2010 (40.2 million) projected to more than double by 2050. With the rapid increase in the aging population, the size of the population with cognitive impairment and dementia will continue to accelerate, highlighting the importance of identifying cognitive changes.

“Cognitive impairment may serve as a precursor to future dementia. Early detection of cognitive impairment can facilitate timely medical treatments, appropriate care planning, and prevention efforts,” said Bei Wu, PhD, Dean’s Professor in Global Health and director of Global Health & Aging Research at NYU Meyers, co-director of NYU Aging Incubator, and the study’s senior author.

The study sought to examine the trends of self-reported cognitive impairment among five major racial/ethnic groups from 1997 to 2015 in the United States. The researchers used data from the National Health Interview Survey, including 155,682 individuals age 60 and above in their sample. The large sample included people of a variety of races and ethnicities, including Asian Americans,  Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, non-Hispanic Blacks, and non-Hispanic Whites.

Rather than using a screening test or clinical examination to evaluate cognitive impairment, respondents were asked to report if any family member was “limited in anyway because of difficulty remembering or because of experiencing periods of confusion.”

The researchers found an increasing trend in self-reported cognitive impairment: the overall rate increased from 5.7 percent in 1997 to 6.7 percent in 2015 among older adults in the U.S. This finding may suggest that awareness of cognitive impairment, perhaps from heightened public attention to and interest in Alzheimer’s disease, has improved to some extent.

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When looking at each racial/ethnic group, however, the increasing trend was significant only among White respondents. In Whites, the rate of self-reported cognitive impairment increased from 5.2 percent in 1997 to 6.1 percent in 2015. Asian American, Black, Hispanic, and Native American respondents had higher rates of self-reported cognitive impairment than Whites, but these rates did not significantly increase from 1997 to 2015.

Regardless of the overall increasing trend, the rates of self-reported cognitive impairment were still low, which may suggest underreporting. The researchers note that the rates of self-reported cognitive impairment are much lower than the estimated prevalence of cognitive impairment. For adults 65 years and older, the rate of self-reported cognitive impairment was 6.3 percent in 2000 and 7.5 percent in 2012, while the estimated prevalence of cognitive impairment in the same age group was 21.2 percent in 2000 and 18.8 percent in 2012.

These findings underscore the need to further promote awareness of cognitive impairment, especially in minority populations. Different cultures hold different beliefs and perceptions of disease and aging. For instance, research has found that compared to Whites, minorities are less likely to seek treatment for psychiatric symptoms because of lack of access to care or due to stigma.

“Culturally specific health education is needed in individuals, family members, and healthcare providers to improve awareness and knowledge of signs and early symptoms of Alzheimer’s and other dementia,” said Huabin Luo, PhD, of East Carolina University.

In addition to Wu and Luo, Gary Yu of NYU Meyers coauthored the study.