Entrusted with a community-raised aged care facility intended to support Harden-Murrumburrah residents into the future, Southern Cross Care NSW & ACT (SCC) group is now being labelled “un-Christian”.
That sentiment ricocheted across the packed Mechanics Institute Hall on Tuesday night (23 February) as residents discussed the future of aged care in the town following the closure of SCC’s St Lawrence Residential Aged Care facility, and amid news that two former residents had passed away since being moved from St Lawrence.
Although SCC didn’t attend, questions abounded about the community fundraising and bequests that founded the facility, first established in nearby Galong and later moved to Harden into a purpose-built facility on land donated by the Freemasons.
Hilltops councillor Tony Flanery addressed the meeting, committing himself to finding a solution for the town’s elderly.
A former director of St Lawrence, he was one of a long line of industrious citizens working for the region’s elderly as the former Galong Boys’ Home was gutted, then converted into a 32-bed retirement village and opened in 1977.
This facility was funded by community, individual and business donations, including a group of enterprising farmers who farmed a nearby Catholic-owned paddock.
Cr Flanery said privatisation of aged care saw the facility consigned in 1991, after rigorous interviews, to SCC. Their motto, he recalled, was “we don’t believe in hand outs, we believe in a hand up”.
Any disappointment when SCC subsequently moved to Harden in 2007 was mitigated by ongoing local employment of locals.
Cr Flanery said he was gutted by the recent closure announcement, describing it as the thin end of the wedge for rural communities.
“We gave them (St Lawrence), in good faith, 32 beds. The Masons provided the land and we thought we as a community gave them a hand up when it’s clear they took it as a hand out,” he said.
“Those 32 beds need to stay in this community – they (SCC) can leave if they want – the beds and the building belong to us.”
He urged residents to write to Southern Cross Care, expressing “in the most polite of ways”, their disappointment. He’s also pledged his own time to ensure a solution is found.
Deputy Prime Minister and Federal Member for Riverina Michael McCormack zoomed into the meeting, joining NSW Member for Cootamundra Steph Cooke who was present in the hall. Both were commended by Hilltops Mayor Brian Ingram for their passionate efforts on the community’s behalf.
Cr Ingram said efforts spearheaded by the Harden Regional Development Corporation were ongoing in conjunction with political representations.
“I don’t think I’ve encountered an issue in the past three-and-a-half years that has moved me more than this issue,” an emotional Ms Cooke said, offering her condolences to families who had lost loved ones since SCC made their decision public in January.
“It’s not just the families directly impacted, but we are a small community,” she said, “and I know we all know people in St Lawrence, which has been taken away in such traumatic circumstances.”
Mr McCormack said he’d had daily contact with the Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services, Richard Colbeck, and the problem was the beds within the facility were owned by the provider.
“Obviously this has become a commercial decision by Southern Cross. I’m encouraged by the fact other providers in the area – one at Cowra and another at Temora – would like to investigate the possibility of acquiring the site and the beds to see if they can continue the service.
“It just makes good sense, you’ve got that facility right next to the ambulance station and the new multipurpose service,” he said.
“The Harden community deserves no less.”
Mr McCormack said he couldn’t fathom how demand for aged care beds had fallen in the region.
“It would be the only place in Australia experiencing that reduced demand,” he said.
Rita O’Connor told Region Media she’d tried to get her ageing father into St Lawrence for 12 months but staff blamed delays on paperwork and a waitlist of around 10 people ahead of him.
This is despite SCC saying demand for beds had been below industry average over the past three years, with 10 beds remaining vacant. They’ve also cited a lack of skilled health and aged care staff as reasons for the closure.
It’s also been claimed the not-for-profit SCC had $129 million in the bank at 30 June 2020 and had an operating cash surplus of $6.9 million in FY 2019-2020 and $8.5 million in FY 2018-19.