My partner’s aunt, Ruth, was 96 years old when she went into residential care.

She was intelligent, gregarious and fun to be around. A strongly independent woman, she had travelled and worked in many different countries throughout her life at a time when that was not the norm. And she was one of the first women in Australia to graduate as a social worker in the 1940s.

In her 60’s she married the love of her life and together they continued to travel and live overseas for another 30 years. She was much loved by her many nieces and nephews.

Cup of black tea on a wooden table.

When her husband passed away, she chose, at age 94, to come back to her beloved Australia and live by the sea in a small unit. She would enjoy her first cup of tea at 4 am, a lifetime habit, and then return to bed for a couple more hours of sleep.

She took daily walks by the sea, cooked for herself, and socialised in the village and with neighbours. She enjoyed the company of her nephew and his family who lived nearby, and they were there to help her when needed. She had mild, age-related memory loss, but required no medications.

Then she had a fall that resulted in a broken hip and wrist.

Although she bounced back from this remarkably well, her need for daily assistance increased and she reluctantly agreed to move to a residential care home close to us further up the coast. She wasn’t particularly happy living there, but she tried to make the best of it. She was the life of the party at sing-a-longs and led the way in creative dancing! She made good use of her social work skills with the other residents who she considered to be very ‘old’.

One day, we were called in as she’d had a serious fall. When we arrived, we found she was highly agitated, and that the staff had restrained her in a chair. The story unfolded – she had requested her early morning cup of tea – at 4 am. The night care staff on duty had refused this request, Ruth argued and became distressed. In her agitated state, she became unbalanced and subsequently fell and hit her head. Over the next month, Ruth’s condition went downhill, her agitation increased, and the staff struggled to deal with her distress.

Ruth never fully recovered and passed away on Christmas day that same year.

I dedicate my work in aged care to Ruth, as I believe that if the staff had known her better, her background, her personal qualities and her routines, she wouldn’t have become agitated that morning and fallen. She would have enjoyed more years by the sea and we would have enjoyed more of her adventurous stories.

Scenarios like Ruth’s have been the impetus for the development of ‘Lifestory Work’, an approach to care planning and support that recognises the whole person and gets to the very heart of the individual.

I always wonder, what if there had been a well-written care plan, that not only addressed her physical needs but also reflected what was important to Ruth; and incorporated information about her past routines and preferences as well as other relevant, but often overlooked information? What if this information had been passed on to those who were paid to provide care and support to Ruth, staff who had been trained in supporting and upholding her wishes, her Rights? Someone who cared enough to provide that 4 am cup of tea?

For the Ruths of today, we can make a difference. We have the Aged Care Quality Standards which make it incumbent on service providers to capture and reflect that which is meaningful to the individual. I believe that ‘Lifestory Work’ is one of the cornerstones to achieving Consumer Directed Care and assists in meeting the Standards and providing quality care.

With the focus on person-centred care, organisations are encouraged to collect this type of information about the people they are supporting. This is fantastic! But how can this information be presented so that it is accessible to all relevant staff and is acted upon?

Next week, we explore Lifestory Work and how this approach supports consumer-directed care and the Aged Care Quality Standards.

Want to know more about life stories and Lifestory Work? Check out Christabelle's site by clicking here.

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