I stepped out of the car to take a picture of the dry paddocks on the way out to a small town located in northern New South Wales and found myself sinking into a pile of sand and chaff, the fallout from recent dust storms that had picked up everything that was laying loose on the ground, dumping it in drifts along the roadside.

parched brown paddocks, dead branches in the Australian outback

It was easy to see the impact that the continued drought conditions are having on the farmers and their animals. 

Every paddock was bare and the farmers who still held cattle were feeding them hay to keep them alive. Areas that had been badly burnt in last year’s fires had made little progress in regenerating, with new areas now alight, lit by the dry storms that had passed through the area over the last few weeks. The air was filled with smoke, creating a haze in the air that limited visibility.

We were in the area working with the team from a small, but vibrant, aged care facility. It was while discussing risks to the centre with the manager that the impact of the drought on rural aged care services became apparent. While their aged care centre is not the only organisation within the area impacted by the ongoing drought conditions, it is an example of how this current dry spell is creating headaches and putting pressure on resources.

The small township sources its water from a large water hole in the Gwydir River. The flow of the river has dwindled and is now a series of rapidly shrinking water holes due to the long dry spell. Water quality at the facility has been affected and the water coming out of the taps is unpalatable – I found that out when I accidentally made a cup of coffee from the local water! The water quality is impacting on equipment at the centre and has led to additional repairs and maintenance on at least two essential pieces of equipment at the facility. To manage and contain repairs and maintenance costs and ensure ongoing potable water, the centre may need to consider installing a filtration system. This is an additional unanticipated cost to the facility.

But the impact is far wider than just having potable water – or, for that matter, any water.

Rising Food Prices

It is anticipated that food costs will continue to rise. Suppliers are now having to source food from further afield, which is impacting on the cost of preparing meals. At the moment, this is primarily affecting fruit and vegetables, however, while local meat prices are currently stable, many farmers in the area are in the process of de-stocking. This has had the effect of temporarily increasing the amount of meat available, but as stocks diminish it is anticipated that prices will rise.

Staffing

Staff at the facility have also been impacted by the drought as some staff members live on rural properties in the surrounding area. During our week at the centre, one valued staff member reported that the property where her husband was employed, and where they lived, was de-stocking that week. She was concerned as this meant that potentially her husband would be out of work, which could in turn impact on their residential situation, as their ‘house’ went with his job. She was considering the possibility of having to move away from the area to find other work. If the drought conditions continue the centre may lose some valuable long-term workers.

Residents

The manager noted that the drought is also affecting the mental wellbeing of residents, many of whom have come from the surrounding area and have family still on properties who are facing the impact of the drought.

Some residents are having to face the possibility of seeing their family move away from the area for work or to take up other opportunities as businesses in the nearby larger towns close down. They are facing potential disconnect from family, with family members likewise weighing up the prospect of moving their loved one to a new location and facility, or leaving them behind in a place where they are well cared for and settled.

Those residents with impaired breathing are also finding the smoke and/or dust-laden atmosphere a concern. When the air quality is poor they are limited to staying indoors to ensure their health and safety.

Facility

The impact of the drought is also having wide ranging consequences, including on how services meet Aged Care Standard 5, ‘Service Environment’.

While the gardens surrounding the aged care centre have been landscaped to minimise the use of water and many bushes continue to flower despite the dry conditions, the ‘lawns’ are bare and parched, reflective of the wider region and water restrictions in place.

Landscaped garden in arid climate with benches to sit on.

Feedback from neighbouring facilities in other small rural communities stated that recent Quality Review reports included comments such as “no green grass surrounding the facility”, the “windows were dusty” and there was “minor building cracking”… things that the services could do little about due to the extremely dry conditions and of course those recent dust storms.

Emergency Planning

As noted above, this discussion started off by reviewing the risks to the service and, in particular, evacuation planning. In an earlier planning session, the town of Armidale – approximately 100km south-east of the facility – had been identified as the nearest large urban centre and potential location for evacuees. However, Armidale now has reportedly less than 100 days of water remaining. The manager had recently spoken to facility managers in this town who noted that they may also need to make plans for evacuating residents should the levels drop below critical levels.

The water supply to Inverell, the nearest town to the facility, has reportedly dropped to less than 7% capacity. The manager noted that she had discussed this issue with a Council member and was concerned to note that there is no contingency plan in place for the town and surrounding areas should supplies reach critical levels.

With the two closest locations out of the picture for emergency evacuation planning, this left the service with the only other option – sending people to the coast, which currently would mean the possibility of travelling through fire and smoke-affected areas.

There’s always hope

However, all is not doom and gloom and there’s always hope!

When it comes to audits and reviews it is important for service providers facing these issues to explain the impact of drought to reviewers and highlight how they are supporting consumers and managing facility resources to mitigate risk. Being proactive and doing what is possible, even if seemingly minor, will help reduce stress on staff and promote a sense of control, despite the impact of drought.

And when things get tough, Australians come to each others aid – this is something the manager has observed in recent weeks. On hearing that the service needed to purchase drinking water, a local Rotary club delivered a donation of two pallets of bottled water to the facility. And while I was sitting with the manager during the week working though their emergency plans, she received a phone call from an aged care facility located in Sydney, and was moved to tears when the caller revealed that on hearing the problems with water scarcity, their facility had held a fundraising event and were forwarding the $300 raised.

This act of standing together to ensure the continuation of quality care to frail, vulnerable people in our society is really touching and demonstrates the essence of Christmas, the season of giving.

So to all of you in the far flung places around this wide brown land, wherever you are and whatever your setting, our Christmas wish for you is good times, good health and a really good soaking rain.

From all the team at CDCS. 🙂

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Carrie

Carrie is a passionate advocate for the provision of quality, community based, aged care.
In her spare time, while she ages gracefully, she helps out with kids theatre, rides an electric bike and drags her husband off to explore the world as often as possible.