Swinburne University’s Wellbeing Clinic for Older Adults provides tele-health psychological support for rural and regional aged care residents | The Courier

Diana J. Smith

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Depression and hopelessness, loneliness, isolation and concern for the future top the fears of rural and regional residents living in aged care. Despite the heavy toll of mental health concerns on aged care residents, there are few psychological and mental wellbeing support services for those living in aged care, particularly in regional and rural areas, with the need even greater since COVID lockdowns. Swinburne University’s Wellbeing Clinic for Older Adults has stepped in to provide psychological support, having been awarded $396,000 by the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust to provide a free telehealth counselling and support service to aged care residents, family members of residents, and aged care staff in five Victorian regions including Grampians. The funding will allow this service, which began in February, to take on more than 20 counsellors a year over the next three years to meet the growing needs of this community for mental health services. “Access to government-funded psychological services for aged care residents in remote areas is difficult, and there are very few mental health providers who are equipped to work within this sector in these areas,” said Swinburne Wellbeing Clinic for Older Adults director Professor Sunil Bhar. “There are approximately 246 residential aged care facilities in regional and rural Victoria, accommodating 18,158 residents. Of these residents, more than 50 per cent live with significant levels of depression, anxiety and loneliness; yet their access to face to face mental health services in such regions is poor,” he said. Postgraduate psychology, counselling and social work students, under the supervision of experienced practitioners, provide the service via video technology to reduce depression, anxiety and loneliness in vulnerable aged care residents and support residents’ families and staff. The Wellbeing Clinic began as a way of sending allied health students in to aged care facilities to help improve the quality of life and mental health of residents, while providing training to the students but when COVID hit in 2020 the program moved online as the need grew – and last year the Helen MacPherson Smith Trust, which has a goal to improve the wellbeing of Victorians in rural and remote areas, offered extra funding to focus on regional areas including Ballarat. “It’s not a Lifeline type of crisis service, but a way to offer psychological services with ongoing counselling,” Professor Bhar said. Aged care residents make up about 85 per cent of clients, with staff and residents’ families the remainder. Professor Bhar said among residents, depression and hopelessness, the feeling of ‘when will this ever end’, worry about what’s coming next, concerns about family, loneliness and isolation as well as an underlying sense of dread and anxiety about the pandemic were major concerns. Families typically called the service because they were worried about their family member living in a nursing home, worried how they could best support their ageing mum or dad, and for ways to deal with the complex feelings of guilt, shame and sense of abandonment in placing someone they love in aged care – particularly when COVID made it impossible to visit. The burnout of aged care staff has Professor Bhar concerned. “Aged care staff, as we are hearing, are completely burnt out. There have been a number of policy changes that made their life even more difficult. “During COVID they were not allowed to work across facilities, so many workers left the sector because they couldn’t afford to work in just one centre. It’s a very transient workforce. With many staff members not available, the ones who were had to pick up the load … and staff told us their number one fear was bringing COVID in to a facility,” he said. “It wasn’t only that they were having to pick up the load, they were afraid to make things worse for aged care residents.” IN OTHER NEWS Professor Bhar said aged care facilities that were not linked to a regional health service had the biggest issues in providing mental health support for residents, families and staff. “There are meant to be services that will go in to aged care facilities for mental health, but they are so few and far between that we tend to be the only option in most facilities.” Professor Bhar said those who accessed the telehealth service showed great improvement in depression and loneliness. “They tell us it’s been fantastic to be able to speak to someone outside of the family and institution about what is worrying them,” he said. “Many of these individuals are very stoic and don’t want to burden their kids or are afraid if they complain to their facility they’ll come across as trouble maker … so to have someone neutral to talk to about their worries is a big help.” Our team of local journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the Ballarat community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content:


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