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Older Australians deserve access to specialised physiotherapy

Older Australians deserve access to specialised ph
Photo: Older Australians deserve access to specialised physiotherapy
While many older Australians accept physical decline as part of ageing, experts say this shouldn’t be the case.

In fact, they say, with dedication and assistance, even serious setbacks can be overcome, enabling the continuation of a full life, regardless of age. 

This is where specialised physiotherapists come in, playing an integral role in ensuring the physical, and in turn mental, wellbeing of the elderly.  

Unfortunately, access to physiotherapy is difficult for older Australians. 

“Over the last 10 years there has been limited access to suitable physiotherapy services in residential aged care, due to the ACFI funding process,” says Australian Physiotherapist Association member and National Chair of Gerontology Group, Joanna Tan.

“However, advocacy groups are working hard to improve the system, with many changes expected following the Royal Commission into aged care, and increased government focus on the recommendations.”
The Final Report of the Royal Commission into Aged care Quality and Safety identified promoting and maintaining mobility to reduce the risk of life-threatening falls in older people.

The report stated that: mobility was closely linked with people’s health and their quality of life, and that poor mobility increased the risk of falls and fall-related injuries due to deconditioning and reduced muscle strength.

The APA called on the federal government to roll out a comprehensive plan for implementation of its recommendations that has person centred care, not cost centred, as its basis.

“Just like any age, elderly people want to remain active and independent with assistance to manage issues like pain, fatigue, weakness, falls prevention and injury management,” says Ms Tan.

“Older people can sometimes have more complex health issues which impact their quality of life and mobility, so physiotherapists have a broad range of skills and training to address these, with a focus on the client’s own goals.”

The APA provides specific training in gerontology with a pathway for specialisation. There are also several post-graduate courses at university that have a gerontology focus.

“Physiotherapists are trained to assess and provide treatments and advice for a range of conditions that are seen in an aged care setting,” says Ms Tan.

“Just like physiotherapists in other settings, they see people with musculoskeletal problems, orthopaedic injuries, and rehabilitation, as well as neurological problems like strokes and respiratory conditions.

“They also provide advice and management plans for people with dementia, wounds, pressure areas, and continence issues.”

Physiotherapists specialising in aged care can work in community and residential aged care settings, as well as providing transitional services between hospital and home, or for those who may be considering entry into residential care.

“Physiotherapists can work in so many areas in aged care that cross over the hospital,  community, private, and not for profit sectors, so there are many roles available,” says Ms Tan.

“Some physiotherapists go on to work in management, quality and safety areas as well as in government and advocacy roles.

“With a growing percentage of the population over 65, there will be more and more work for physiotherapists with aged care experience.”

Ms Tan says it’s critical to the wellbeing of older Australians that they have access to properly trained physiotherapists.

“It is up to all of us to advocate and encourage our older people to seek help from a physiotherapist,” she says.

“Better subsidies from governments and improved referral processes would help increase access to physiotherapy services for older Australians.

“We are all looking forward to a better system that provides suitable funding for evidenced based cost effective clinically relevant  physiotherapy care that will help older Australians age with dignity.”

According to APA National President Scott Willis, falls are the number one cause of preventable death in residential aged care – another reason access to physiotherapists is crucial.

“The lack of investment in falls prevention programs over a long period of time, particularly when there is such strong evidence for their value, is an oversight that has had tragic consequences for too many families,” he says.

The Royal Commission has highlighted the critical role that physiotherapists play in aged care.

“We know that mobility programs led by physiotherapists can reduce the number of falls in residential aged care by 55 per cent – the government simply has no excuse not to fund this critical care for older Australians.”

The report also found that those living with incontinence and dementia often received substandard care, which Ms Willis says the APA has called out many times. 

“Appropriately qualified and experienced health professionals must be employed to provide the complex care and support that these extremely vulnerable people need.

“We have talked about team-based, holistic care in all health settings for a long time. There’s no more critical place for this to start than in aged care."

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Nicole Madigan

Nicole Madigan is a widely published journalist with more than 15 years experience in the media and communications industries.

Specialising in health, business, property and finance, Nicole writes regularly for numerous high-profile newspapers, magazines and online publications.

Before moving into freelance writing almost a decade ago, Nicole was an on-air reporter with Channel Nine and a newspaper journalist with News Limited.

Nicole is also the Director of content and communications agency Stella Communications (www.stellacomms.com) and a children's author.