Support and Services with Dignity

Mission Australia

Mission Australia has a 154 year history. City missions, including those from Brisbane, Adelaide and Sydney, all came together in 1999 to form one Mission Australia. It is a national charity with the National office in Sydney and state offices in each state. There are six in total; the Northern Territory State office is shared with Queensland.

The organisation offers a vast swath of services with 572 programs and services and over 3,800 staff helping approximately 300,000 Australians every year. It cares for children and families, issues dealing with youth as well as community housing, employment and training. It is as all encompassing an organisation as one would ever find.

Mainstream aged care caters to the people who have assets – who have a family and can afford an aged care home or other facilities. “Our aged care is quite different. We look after the homeless, those at risk of homelessness and the socially and financially disadvantaged,” Jill explains.

In Australia, low care people pay an accommodation bond to enter into aged care. In high care, they pay what’s referred to as an accommodation charge. With Mission Australia Aged Care, the client doesn’t pay either of these payments. To qualify, an individual cannot have assets of more than $44,000. There are only a few aged care facilities in Australia that look after this clientele.

“What we offer is permanent accommodation with single rooms and en suites. They live in small communities that we call pods, which have their own dining room and two lounge areas. One is for quiet time, and the other has a TV in it.”

Mission Australia Aged Care division provides a wide range of activities to engage clients. Typically, when someone comes in they are not very social. The activities are geared towards connecting them back to the community and making them more socially aware. Other activities involve corporate sponsorship; a sponsor will come in with a small gift as a door prize. “They would bring in a little present for different residents because they don’t have a family and of course without that they do not get birthday or Christmas presents. So, we do make sure that they do receive something,” says Jill.

Lots of donations of clothing come in to the aged care facilities, but the organisation doesn’t just dole them out as charity; instead, the team hosts a ‘Clothes Galore Day’. The activities room is set up like a retail shop and the residents will come to choose their clothes and try things on. “It’s a little bit like retail therapy. They don’t pay for it of course. It gives them that little bit of dignity in being able to choose their own clothes.”

Many residents come from different backgrounds, and that comes into play with other activities. Most aged care organisations use reminiscence as a therapy to evoke memories of when residents were children. Unfortunately, some of those memories are not good and bringing that up can be detrimental. What Mission Australia Aged Care does is to celebrate the diversity of its residents depending on country of origin, allowing residents to showcase their home countries. “Trip around the World” is a big presentation in the activities room that include all of the flags and artefacts of a particular country. By showcasing the individuals who come from a country, it instils a sense of pride and prompts them to talk about where they came from.

“Today we had a trip to Italy,” shares Jill. “We display everything about Italy including some of the buildings and what the country is all about. We ate lasagne and other Italian foods. We also played music from that country. It generates conversation and the person being showcased is beaming with pride. It’s a positive spotlight.” The clients develop self worth through this activity, and it helps them to work on their social skills.

Having worked at shelters in Toronto, Canada, I understand what Mission Australia is trying to do here; it makes a lot of sense. Many homeless individuals do not want people to know what led them to become homeless. The reminiscence exercise is a good way to reach them in a familiar and comfortable context.

I asked Jill about the organisation’s intake procedures. The team is involved in outreach, but typically the people that it houses come to the organisation through some kind of medical emergency. Given their age and the fact that most are on the street, a medical crisis is commonplace. They end up in the hospital and, of course, cannot be sent home afterwards.

Referrals to Mission Australia come through social workers in the hospitals. There is an assessment team who has to go through the right paperwork before clients can access the aged care facility, so if they do not come via the hospital, then someone has to speak on the clients behalf to determine eligibility.

The majority of residents have some kind of mental illness. This is typically the main factor in why they were homeless in the first place. It is also the reason that they can’t hold a job or a tenancy in social housing. “We do end up with people who are schizophrenic or bi-polar, for example. On site, we have psychiatrists and psycho-geriatricians that look after our people. They are not here full time but rather come as needed and have to be admitted under a GP.”

Mission Australia also provides podiatrists, optometrists and dental services. There are also commercial kitchens where hot meals are prepared on site. This is especially important because good nutrition is vital for the residents. Some of the people admitted come with a diagnosis of severe malnutrition, so the home cooked meals are something that is desperately needed.

Sadly, being in the field of aged care means that, inevitably, some of the residents will pass away. Funeral directors will come to look after the residents at that time. Sometimes Mission Australia performs a pauper’s funeral and other times a cremation is feasible. But, being an organisation that espouses the benefits of Christian values, the team includes a pastor and chaplains, and the organisation will hold memorial services that are attended by staff and management.

“Basically we become a part of the family. Some have been here for a number of years before they pass away, so we get to know them and, during the funeral, will talk about experiences in getting to know them.”

A comment from one of the residents who witnessed a funeral run by Mission Australia sums up the importance of the ceremony in the eyes of the aged. “I feel really comfortable now because I now know what’s going to happen with me when I pass away.” It was obviously very important for him to know that the staff of Mission Australia Aged Care will remember him and speak about him. After all, no one wants to be forgotten and the people at Mission Australia make sure all the residents understand that they are relevant and appreciated as people.

It should go without saying that, for an organisation like Mission Australia to work, there needs to be a very professional, courteous and caring staff behind it. A low turnover rate is also essential for bonds to be strengthened between the staff and clients and the staff has to be extremely committed. At one Mission Australia Aged Care site there is a 3.3 per cent turnover rate and at another it is 10 per cent – very low in the aged care sector. There is no agency staff but rather a crew of casuals.

“What we look for are people who fit the team and also have a good commitment in looking after this kind of client. We specifically do training in mental health and first aid along with conflict resolution. In addition, we do training on medications.” Mission Australia also has registered nurses on staff who possess a Certificate III or IV in aged care.

A good workforce is, in part, the result of solid team building. Knowing this, Mission Australia Aged Care hosts outings that involve games with clues and rides around the Sydney central business district. The day ends at the Sydney state office with an opportunity to see how employees are connected to the organisation. Camaraderie develops that strengthens the bonds between staff and empowers them further in their jobs.

Aged care falls under the domain of the federal government which allocates a certain amount of money for the care of every resident. “The government has been very generous. They give us a homeless supplement and a viability supplement which has been extremely good, particularly with our services considering that we are not attracting the bonds or big money that people would normally pay into.”

On top of that, Mission Australia has been successful in tendering and winning $16 million to build a seventy-two bed aged care facility in the Sydney suburb of Redfern and was also awarded the funds to build a sixty bed facility at a cost of $14.7 million to serve the regional area of Orange, New South Wales.

Mission Australia has a difficult task to accomplish on a daily basis. It has to cater to the needs of the homeless, aged and financially destitute and do it all without any huge influx of money. It has a lot going for it, however. A rich and long history of care based on Christian values, a dedicated staff and a plan of action that serves to respect those who rely upon it. I can honestly say, through my own experiences in working with the homeless, that what Mission Australia is doing is rare and very well planned. It has found a way to preserve the dignity of its clients and that is no small feat.

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September 19, 2018, 2:07 PM AEST