A year ago, Norman Russell was living a hermit’s life.
Reeling from the death of his wife, the 61-year-old had withdrawn from his community of Batemans Bay on the NSW South Coast and his home had fallen into disrepair. “I couldn’t even sleep in my own bedroom, my place was that cluttered,” he said. “I was sleeping on a bed in the lounge room.”
Four months after enlisting the help of Booraja Home Care, an aged-care service run by and for Aboriginal people, Mr Russell said he felt like he could “live again”.
“They come in and they treat us like human beings,” he said. “I can hold my head up high now.”
Booraja, meaning “future” in the Dhurga language of the Yuin people, was set up as a pilot program in 2017 by non-profit home care provider IRT Foundation with a $1.4 million Commonwealth grant from the Dementia and Aged Care Services Innovation Funding Round.
The service provides care to 23 Indigenous elders in the Eurobodalla region and employs eight Aboriginal staff, with plans to expand. But its future is uncertain with funding set to expire in December. IRT Foundation has appealed for a further $1.5 million over three years to grow the program to make it self sufficient.Booraja project manager Bunja Smith says the program is giving elders a better quality of life. But pleas to the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, Health Minister Greg Hunt and Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck have failed to secure funding. Without it, the service will fold by the year’s end.
“As with most research projects the funding is not for ongoing services,” Mr Colbeck said in a statement. “However, the government will be working with eligible people taking part in the trial to ensure they continue have [sic] access to ongoing home care support once the trial is finalised.”
Mr Colbeck said the findings of the pilot project would inform the rollout of aged-care services to Indigenous people. Mr Russell said he would be “devastated” if the service was shut down. “Without these people I would never survive.” Prior to joining the program, three quarters of clients had never accessed home care, IRT Foundation research shows.
The key to Booraja’s success, said project manager Bunja Smith, is its focus on cultural care. The Yuin man said Aboriginal concepts were embedded, from employing local Aboriginal staff to organising cultural activities and taking elders to visit sacred sites “We’re keeping our people connected with country and that’s a big difference from any mainstream home care service that you’ll get,” he said. Mr Smith said the program also had unexpected benefits for local Indigenous youth who’d taken on the role of carers. “Our young people here on the South Coast have been a little bit lost,” he said. “Just like youth around the country … I think they’re feeling confused, unloved and unwanted.
“By giving them a job at Booraja, they’re feeling a sense of worth … that they have a purpose.” Jayde Miller, 29, was unemployed before becoming a carer 14 months ago. “It’s put me on my feet again and gave me that spark again of wanting to work with the community,” he said.
Mr Smith said the program was not only helping to tackle the region’s 10 per cent unemployment rate, but also fostering “invaluable” cultural connections by pairing elders with young carers. “As elders, we’ve realised that we’re dying and we’re taking our knowledge with us, so it’s very important that we have an avenue to pass that knowledge on,” he said.
“By sending young people into an elder’s place … you’ll find the elders are educating the younger ones … There’s a cultural exchange between the old and the new and that’s priceless.”
Mr Miller said he’d formed strong relationships with local elders. “Most of them are very strong people and they’ve been through a lot … and they still greet you with a smile,” he said.
Veronica Holmes was initially reluctant to open her home to strangers. The 76-year-old, who grew up at Wallaga Lake Aboriginal Mission south of Narooma, is no stranger to hard work. The self-described “old farm girl” spent her life picking fruit and vegetables, before reluctantly retiring at 67.
“My legs went on me, I couldn’t bend around the tomato bushes and bean bushes no more, so I had to quit,” she said. Today, her front garden is her pride and joy. But a lifetime of manual labour has caught up with her and she needs a helping hand to keep her petunias in bloom.
“I know I need a bit of help,” she said. After a negative experience with one care provider, Ms Holmes said she’s found a good fit with Booraja.The young carers who tidy her garden, mow her lawn and vacuum her carpets are the children and grandchildren of her former workmates in the bean paddocks. In one instance, a carer turned out to be a niece she hadn’t met.
“I’d rather have the Aboriginal [carers]. We are connected,” Ms Holmes said. Mr Smith said these relationships were hard won. “It took a lot to get [the elders’] trust for us to come into their house,” he said.
“If Booraja was to lose funding … they would feel totally let down by the government again. It’s something that I think would be irreparable, because they wouldn’t trust again,” he said.
Mr Smith’s dream is to expand the program to service the entire Yuin nation, which spans around 14,000 square kilometres along the South Coast. He also hopes to provide home care to Aboriginal people with disabilities through the National Disability Insurance Scheme. “If we were to get the funding… we’d see a lot better quality of life for a lot more Aboriginal people.”
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About IRT Group:
IRT Group is one of Australia’s largest community-owned seniors’ lifestyle and care providers. With 50 years’ experience and locations throughout NSW, the ACT and South East Queensland, we employ over 2800 people and play a significant role in promoting seniors as dynamic, influential and valuable members of society.