The end of a long Anglicare chapter

The decision by Anglicare to abandon residential aged care has caused anguish and sadness, even if it was inevitable.

It has sold its five nursing homes in Canberra and across the south coast to the Returned Services League as "on-going concerns". The Anglican Church (in this Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn) continues to provide chaplaincy and pastoral care to residents in the homes. And it continues to own cheaper to run 'retirement living premises' in Red Hill, Downer and Goulburn.

The Anglicare Board urged a sale more than four years ago. When they did sell early this year the church got less for them.

Anglicare said the transfer to another provider was done in a way that ensured residents were being put "at the centre". "But it is with a heavy heart that we do this," spokesman Bishop Stephen Pickard said at the time the decision was made.

His heaviness of heart is based on a belief that institutions like the Anglican Church, from parishes to the welfare agencies developed to represent them, have a social contract to care and provide for the vulnerable, from the cradle to the grave.

"No one can ever say Anglicare did not try it's heart out to make this work but the reality is that when residents come into facilities they will be older and more frail which will require the kind of facility that is well capitalised and able to deliver," said Pickard.

The Anglican Church is exceedingly complex and managing aged care hideously so. Perhaps if pioneers of aged care in this region knew that they would not have been so tenacious in developing the facilities that Anglicare had to sell.

Back in the middle of the last century, people who hadn’t made provision for their old age were forced to find refuge in state run homes that were often crowded and poorly serviced. The Anglican Church faced calls to do something and responded. What it did do owed a lot to chance, if not faith, and some colourful benefactors. That heritage, one that I have researched, is worth remembering whoever owns the aged care facilities today.

Bimbimbie Retirement Village at the edge of Lake Merimbula is a case in point. It was one of the first aged care enterprises the Diocese developed on 18 acres of hilltop land donated to the Anglican Diocese in 1968 by Irish-born businessman and engineer, John McIlwraith-Smith.

Insisting that it be used for aged care, McIlwraith-Smith tried the Methodists then the Catholics. Astonished at the difficulty of donating land with sea views, McIlwraith-Smith persevered and approached the Anglicans. He had come to know the rector at Pambula, Dick Clark, and through him the then Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn, Kenneth Clements.

Reverend Frank Woodwell, then rector of Bega (and founder of the Bega Valley Aboriginal Advancement Association) who told me it was all done “in faith”. “We let contracts with no money.” When Bishop-in-Council members wavered, Woodwell told them the Church should be involved “because we are in the people business”.

Elizabeth Moore was a foundation committee member, a good networker and an active member of St Clement’s in Merimbula. Bishop Clements had known Moore in Canberra where she was the rector’s warden at All Saints in Ainslie, taking an energetic role in welcoming new residents living in the sheep paddocks that had become Canberra's newest northern suburbs. Clements sent Moore to tour the few established retirement villages in NSW in order to find out what would work.

Unperturbed by some in the Diocese who, Moore said, “thought we were a bit mad,” the committee engaged local businesses, clubs, parishes and other groups of people to make an appeal and secure the necessary finance. The Commonwealth Government chipped in with a two-for-one subsidy.

Self contained units, a hostel and village hub were built. Lodgings in the hostel required no bond and there was no assets test. Charges were a percentage of the single age pension.

“We could see the great need for it for people who were older and more frail,” Moore said in 2008. Good aged care's about “enormous patience and love”.

During Canberra's first sixty years the needs of the aged were not pressing. By the mid-1970s there were only two nursing homes in the ACT, both no-frills government-run facilities in Jamieson and Narrabundah. But by the mid-80s the population aged over 65 was increasing at the rate of nine percent a year. Not only were many people remaining in Canberra after retirement but the elderly relatives were moving to the Capital.

With a lot of volunteer effort, perseverance and fund-raising, Brindabella Gardens was the first of two Anglican aged care facilities that opened in Canberra. But they only ever cut even or bled money as residents' needs and community standards intensified.

While there are exceptions, church agencies are not well equipped to manage aged care. Their pockets are not deep enough. The Anglican Church didn't have the capital to refurbish and update its facilities and get the minimum number of places needed to spread the dollars and make it work over the long haul.

It's the end of long chapter for the Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn. While controversial at times, it provides a legacy that has served many people.

First published by Fairfax Media.

Toni Hassan is a freelance writer. She is the author of a forthcoming book on the history Anglicare in the capital region.@ToniHassan

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