Advocare: looking after Australia’s seniors

An independent not-for-profit organisation based in Western Australia, Advocare provides a range of services designed to assist seniors and their families and carers, and works across the state to raise public awareness and understanding of older people’s rights.

Diedre Timms is the organisation’s CEO, and has over 20 years’ executive level management and community development experience in the not-for-profit sector. She has managed programs and organisations in the areas of disability, women’s health, aboriginal health, aged care and community care, and international emergency response. Ms Timms spoke with The Australian Business Executive about the services offered by Advocare, the work undertaken to raise the organisation’s profile, and the need for the government to allocate adequate funding and resources to the aged care sector.

Protecting the rights of older people

“We’ve been around since 1996,” Ms Timms says, “and our mission is about protecting and promoting the rights of older people, and we provide a service across Western Australia. We are often answering questions about how seniors can access aged and community care.” The company provides advocacy, information and education for older people, their families, carers and the general community. The main purpose of advocacy is to provide support for older people to make their own choices, directed by the individual.

Developed in 1996 as a project within the division of Kinway of Anglicare Western Australia, Advocare grew from a need to support clients in residential aged care and community care. “There was some funding around to support older people, and sometimes these projects started in larger organisations which had the resources to establish a program. Funding was available through what was then called the Home & Community Care Program [HACC].” The HACC program has since transitioned into the Commonwealth Home Support Program (CHSP), an organisation from which Advocare still receives funding, and which is designed to help older people stay at home.

“We also provide systemic advocacy, so we are regularly reporting issues up to government on behalf of older people, and we’re now part of a very exciting national collaboration called OPAN, or the Older Persons Advocacy Network.” OPAN is made up of nine members, delivering services in all states and territories across Australia. Working collaboratively with colleagues across the country hugely benefits the development of Advocare’s services, enhancing the quality of advocacy for older people.

Education as well as support

“Our work is across WA, and in our last annual report for the recently finished financial year we had just under 8,000 calls to our organisation, and about 10% actually relate to elder abuse. We also staff the WA elder abuse helpline.” A large part of the organisation’s responsibility is to provide education to people through community outreach, residential facilities and community events, where it provides education sessions on rights, how to access services, and preventing elder abuse. “We provide extensive phone support,” Ms Timms adds, “and we travel to the regions as often as our funding permits, but we can’t visit every region every year. We try and build relationships with communities so they are confident to call us and know we’re here to help.”

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Ms Timms admits that there still isn’t a huge awareness of Advocare as a brand or the services it offers. It is still a significant part of the organisation’s mission to inform people of the service. “I take every opportunity to talk about Advocare and the work we do. I’ve got six advocates and a staff of thirteen. We probably have about 28,000 visitors to our website [per year] where we also provide information. We try and reach as many people as possible.”

Education sessions are about building a word-of-mouth network, with the hope being that those who learn about the service for the first time will pass on that learning to others. When people do contact the organisation, it is for a variety of reasons.

Ms. Timms is relatively new to her role as CEO, having come on board in 2017, but her passion for social justice means she is grateful to have the chance to make a difference to people’s lives.

“A family member will ring up and say [someone] really needs some support at home but we don’t know where to start. The age care system is quite complex, and it’s not something that people invest a lot of energy into finding out about, until they actually need it.” Many people who make contact have reached crisis point, often making the whole experience more difficult and stressful. Advocare provides information about where to go and what support is available.

“That might be enough for some people. They’ll go away, they’ll know how to go about getting some support, but for some people they will ring us with some quite complicated situations, where they’re not actually getting the care that they need.” Advocare is equipped to help people with more complex issues, working with them so that they are aware of their rights and exactly what kind of service they should be expecting in their particular circumstances.

Working for social justice

Ms. Timms is relatively new to her role as CEO, having come on board in 2017, but her passion for social justice means she is grateful to have the chance to make a difference to people’s lives. “I’ve spent most of my working life supporting vulnerable people, and I see older people as some of the most vulnerable in our community. Older people really deserve a life of dignity. They’ve actually built the nation we now all enjoy.” The organisation’s strategy going forward is all about engagement, about making as many people as it can aware of its services and the rights of older people. The more older people it can reach, the more it will be able to support.

“Since I’ve been here, we’ve changed our education sessions. We don’t simply provide information, we actually work to really engage people and it’s those rich conversations that allow our advocates to really understand the issues facing older people.” The increased visibility of elder abuse in recent years is the most serious issue Advocare deals with. For Ms Timms, it is impossible to understand exactly why such terrible treatment of elders continues to take place.

“We’ve got these pockets of shocking abuse. The federal government has just announced a Royal Commission enquiring into aged care. My hope is that the commission will make recommendations to government on how to achieve a quality service for older people.” Such a service would require excellent resourcing and funding to be a success, to help organisations invest in staff and provide the necessary training, and to be able to select people with the compassion needed to work in the sector.

Life-expectancy is rising, and numbers of older people are set to keep growing. With an already difficult task of getting to the WA population to talk to everybody who needs help, Advocare will likely face bigger issues going forward. “We are constantly challenged by resources and having to make decisions about what is a priority for our service all the time. I think we’ll all be judged on how we treat older people, and to quote others: ‘the standard we walk past is the standard we accept.’” The fact that there is a large cohort in the country that requires care should not be news, people have known about this emerging issue for a long time. What needs to happen is government action to get adequate resources in place to support those in need.

“Those who can afford to pay for care will have to do so, so that those who don’t have the resources can actually get the care they need and really deserve. I don’t think it’s acceptable to have a waiting list of 105,000 people waiting for packages of care.” The recent introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) has been a game-changer in the not-for-profit sector, and Ms Timms believes the work it does in assisting people with disabilities is commendable. “It’s about a guarantee of support for those with a disability moving forward, so that means that if you have a disability and you get support under the NDIS, that is support for life, and that’s so important for people with a disability.”

The scheme has already faced challenges, however. The setup means that the government has control on setting service prices, and with prices being set so low it can be very difficult to deliver a quality service. “I think it’s going to take some time to get this right, and I sincerely hope there aren’t too many people who miss out or suffer along the way. For Advocare, it will mean that we won’t be supporting people with a disability. Our focus will shift to supporting older people.”

This is because funds that were traditionally allocated to Advocare have now been absorbed within the NDIS, and it will now be up to the individual state to provide funding for that sort of advocacy. “I’m pleased to say WA government have just announced they will provide some funding, but that funding will go to specialist disability support agencies, and Advocare will focus on providing support for older people.”

This focus on providing support will continue to revolve around spreading the word about Advocare’s services. The organisation’s dedicated helpline for elder abuse is 1300 724 679, and it can also be reached on 1800 655 566 for general enquiries.

For more information on Advocare visit www.advocare.org.au.