Sadly, Australia's older adults are experiencing alarming levels of social isolation and depression within our aged care homes – and falling victim to the subsequent health-related impacts.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare identified that up to 52 per cent of care recipients within Australia's residential aged care homes have significant symptoms of depression.
The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety found that of those who visited someone in residential aged care, 89 per cent observed that care recipients were lonely. For those who visited weekly, the observation of loneliness was as high as 96 per cent.
But there is a solution.
The famous novelist and philosopher Fyodor Dostoevsky once said, "The soul is healed by being with children." Those working within Australian residential aged care homes will attest to children's profound positive impact on older care recipients.
Intergenerational programs which bring older adults and children together are novel within Australia. However, evaluations of formal intergenerational programs demonstrate significant benefits for older and younger participants.
Emerging research reveals that quality of life can be significantly enhanced by spending time with children. Reducing loneliness and depression increases mobility and cognitive function, enhances motivation, reduces falls and improves memory retention.
It's not just older adults who benefit. Recent research reveals that children experience many social and developmental benefits too.
Formalised intergenerational programs within residential aged care homes could also have far-reaching economic benefits for society – by reducing healthcare and other costs associated with caring for an ageing population.
Despite the benefits for both individuals and communities, intergenerational care, until recently, has not been viewed as an instrument to address the aged care crisis.
This is because the delivery of a sustainable intergenerational model of care within Australia's aged care system requires a fundamental shift at government and regulatory levels.
Segregation of children and older adults within contemporary Australia is entrenched in program governance, with childcare the responsibility of the state and territory governments and aged care the responsibility of the Commonwealth Government.
The current separation of regulatory bodies and funding fails to deliver and support service and care frameworks that promote intergenerational care models.
Simplifying the regulations, providing incentive funding, and merging the functions of aged care and early learning services for shared-site intergenerational care, would reduce these barriers.
Timing is critical. If we're going to improve Australia's aged care system and protect society's most vulnerable, it's vital that we move quickly. Population ageing is already putting tremendous pressure on the health system, and these challenges will expand with time.
Older adults represent an increasing population demographic. The degree to which ageing impacts future health and aged care services will largely depend on the relationship between longevity increases and health.
It's not a simple fix, but it's vitally important. Restructuring Australia's residential aged care system must be the highest priority, and investing in outcomes for our vulnerable older adults our primary focus.
It is incumbent upon all Australians to fulfil our social obligation to ensure our older adults’ quality of life is the best it can be. We must invest in innovative care models to create a world-class aged care system. Our children are more than our future. They are a balm for Australia's failing aged care system.
Darren Midgley is a graduate researcher with La Trobe University’s John Richards Centre for Rural Ageing Research and is currently undertaking a Professional Doctorate in Public Health. He is the CEO of Rural Care Australia which operates one of Australia's first Rural shared-site Residential Aged Care and Child Care Services.