CARERS of the frail elderly are finding it nearly impossible to access urgently needed respite care.
Many are themselves older and, faced with the arduous nature of their constant caring duties, are desperate for a break. Some may be ill and need to go into hospital or have other other urgent reasons to find respite care.
It is estimated the unpaid care provided by family and friends saves the government more than $60 billion annually.
Yet Carers Australia, the national peak body representing the country's 2.7 million unpaid carers, says there is a critical shortage of respite accommodation in aged care facilities, with residential care providers reducing their number of respite beds or using existing respite places for potential clients in search of a "try before you buy" experience.
Some only offer respite beds when they are between permanent residents.
The organisation has called on the government to increase subsidies for respite care in residential aged care facilities to encourage providers to offer respite beds, and to make different types of respite, such as cottage-type accommodation, more readily available for overnight and weekend breaks.
Carers Australia chief executive Ara Creswell said a national survey of organisations that help carers access respite services shows increasing difficulty for carers to find respite care when they need a break from the demands of providing around-the-clock care, or to deal with their own health or other family issues.
"Caring for the aged can be an exhausting, time-consuming and emotionally wearing task - especially for those carers who are aged themselves," she said.
"For many the opportunity to take a break is vital to their ability to continue providing care at home.
"They will also need to find replacement care for the person they care for if they become ill themselves or have other demands which need attention and take them away from home."
Nearly 70 per cent of survey respondents reported that both emergency and pre-planned respite were difficult or very difficult to access, with 35 per cent saying they were only able to find respite beds some of the time.
"If a carer needs to be away for more than a night or two, respite accommodation for those they care for in an aged residential care facility is often their only option," Ms Cresswell said.
"Daily subsidies paid to residential aged care providers by the government are much higher for permanent residents and for
residents convalescing after an illness or operation than for respite care, so there is a disincentive to make short-term stays available for respite care. The difference is even sharper for people with high care needs, including people with advanced dementia."
Ms Creswell said the research also indicates a high, unfulfilled demand for overnight and weekend respite, particularly in cottage-style accommodation.
"Cottage-style respite is ideal because it offers home-like surroundings and can feel more like a holiday for the person with care needs," she said.
"The recent Aged Care Legislated Review 2017 recommended the government review existing respite arrangements to ensure there is an adequate supply of residential respite with equitable access.
"We would expect that the outcomes of this survey be taken into account in that review."
Govt waits on report
AGED Care Minister Ken Wyatt said recommendations on respite care were being taken into account as part of the government's consideration of the Tune Review (Aged Care Legislated Review 2017).
"Respite care is a crucial support service for frail older people and their carers, and is provided in a number of settings to allow greater flexibility for carers and consumers," he said.
"I have tasked the Aged Care Financing Authority with undertaking a study on the increasing use of respite care and the appropriateness of the current arrangements, including funding structures for providers and consumers."
The authority is due to report back in October.