Alumni insight: what it’s really like to work in aged care

Find out why La Trobe alumni adore their careers in aged care, as they take you behind some of the sector’s strongest stereotypes.

In Australia, aged care is getting attention from all angles. From the launch of a Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety in 2018, to the release of ABC TV’s series Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds in 2019, the renewed focus is shining new light on how we can best support older people as they age.

So, what does a day on the job in aged care really look like? We checked in with three La Trobe alumni who care passionately about helping older people live their best lives. They share what they love most about working in aged care, take us behind the scenes in their everyday work and myth-bust some of common misconceptions about aged care careers.

It’s not ‘just massage’ – Madelyn McPhee, physiotherapist

After graduating from La Trobe’s Bendigo campus, ‘born and bred Mildura girl’ Madelyn McPhee (Bachelor of Health Sciences/Master of Physiotherapy Practice) took her aged care career back to her home town. There, she’s loved making a difference to older people’s lives by working as a physiotherapist for Chaffey Aged Care.

When asked what the main stereotype faced by physios in aged care,

“From an allied health point of view, the stereotype is that it's ‘just massage’. However, if you look outside the box there are many ways you can make an impact as a physio,” Madelyn says.

“Having a chat about their family or past while giving therapeutic touch can brighten up their whole day. Another example is putting a TENS machine on someone in pain. It just lifts their mood.” Pain management is a big part of Madelyn’s typical workday.

“Pain management usually keeps me busy until 10am, then I do assessments until lunch time. After lunch I’ll do more pain management, some assessments and some manual handling issues, until I knock off,” she says.

In between, Madelyn finds time to run group programs for her residents, including a men’s strengths and balance group on Mondays, regular rehab classes and an intergenerational music therapy program. The latter brings children and adults into the facility to joyfully play, sing and dance. And if that’s not enough variety, Madelyn occasionally assists with tai chi and exercise classes.

“It’s hectic!” she laughs, “But aged care is definitely a rewarding career if you have the mindset for it. I’d encourage more people to look at it as a career option. With our ageing population, there’s a demand for allied health that will continue in coming years.”

You won’t de-skill – Lucas Lloyd, Associate Director of Nursing

One of the leaders at Chaffey Aged Care is alumnus Lucas Lloyd (Bachelor of Nursing; Graduate Certificate in Anaesthesia and Post-Anaesthesia Nursing). As the facility’s Associate Director of Nursing, Lucas oversees the daily care of 100 residents across permanent, respite and transition care, and supports his fellow nursing staff to solve complex care issues. From coordinating extra services, to liaising with families, residents and allied health professionals, a typical day is ‘complex and multifaceted’.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Lucas is quick to counter two mistaken beliefs about working in aged care: that it’s ‘easy’; and that nursing staff often become ‘de-skilled’ as a result of working in the sector.

“Nothing could be further from the truth! We’re currently seeing people coming into residential aged care who are older and sicker. Increasingly, residents require highly complex care, which in turn requires nursing staff who are skilled in chronic disease management, advanced clinical assessment and palliative care,” Lucas says.

While residential aged care is a ‘home’ and not an acute medical facility, residents often still need medical care to maintain a good quality of life.

“Some of the more advanced procedures that nurses at our facility perform are intravenous therapy, limited non-invasive ventilation and complex wound management. They also undertake diagnostic interventions like electrocardiograms and pathology,” Lucas says.

Yet providing care isn’t just about advanced physical clinical skills. Nurses working in aged care settings need to be highly emotionally skilled, too.

“Nursing staff need to be good listeners, mediators and ‘counsellors’ and able to deal with highly personal and emotional issues, both of residents and of their families.”

Like Madelyn, Lucas loves the variety an aged care career brings, along with the strong bonds he forms with residents and their families.

“No two days are ever the same and each day presents new challenges to manage. Seeing the positive outcomes we achieve for people is very rewarding – from devising ways to help someone live more independently, right through to providing dignified end-of-life care,” he says.

“If you enjoy a challenge, have solid clinical knowledge and can interact with people from a diverse range of backgrounds, then aged care might just be the career for you!”

It’s never boring – Martha Rowe, CEO of Jacaranda Village

For alumna Martha Rowe (Bachelor of Speech Pathology), the path to a leadership role in aged care took her to remote parts of Victoria. On graduating from La Trobe’s Bundoora campus, she first relocated to the small town of Nhill in western Victoria to work as a speech pathologist. There, she married a grain farmer and moved into a management position at Nhill’s local hospital.

After the birth of her first child, Martha took on private work with the region’s residential aged care facilities. However, she and her husband soon realised that raising a young family while farming ‘wasn’t an option’. Building on her strong health management background, Martha began to look for a new career challenge. When the CEO position became available at Jacaranda Village, an aged care facility near Mildura in the state’s northwest, she and her husband leased the family farm and moved north.

“I’m in a very fortunate position to have swapped roles with my husband. He’s been looking after our kids full-time and running his business from home, while I’ve returned to full-time work,” Martha says.

“I’m also fortunate in that our organisation is family-friendly and supports women returning to the workforce. I have flexible work hours and the Board of Management encourages my family to travel with me when I have to attend meetings in Melbourne or Sydney.”

Asked what stereotype prevails in the aged care sector, Martha says it’s the idea that the work is uninteresting.

“People feel that working in aged care is boring, but it’s far from it! I love the diversity – every day I’m working on projects with staff, dealing with resident issues, writing reports and chasing grants,” she says.

What’s more, as older people make up an increasing proportion of Australia’s population, Martha sees the demand for evidence-based practice as driving a culture of learning in the aged care sector.

“There’s so much to learn. At Jacaranda Village, we have many young, enthusiastic staff taking on projects and clinical research. There’s a huge opportunity to increase your skills and knowledge-base.”

For its part, La Trobe is helping develop the aged care knowledge-base through its John Richards Centre for Rural Ageing Research. Based at our Albury-Wodonga campus and backed by a generous philanthropic donation, the centre investigates healthy ageing and how to best deliver health and aged care services in rural and regional contexts.

Clearly, the La Trobe alumni community is full of passionate people dedicated to helping others age with dignity. May our older selves thank them for their inspiring work!

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