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Nun incident highlights mental health care system neglect

Two sisters from the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart congregational aged care facility in Sydney were forced to drive a mentally ill sister to hospital after being unable to secure a police escort.

The Daily Telegraph reports that sisters at St Joseph's Aged Care Facility for the Religious in Kensington, Sydney, called police after an ambulance refused to transfer the 78-year-old woman to Prince of Wales hospital without an escort.

But police told the nursing home they were already escorting another person to Newcastle and could not help, according to NSW Opposition Leader John Brogden, who made the claims public today.

Police escorts are required for the transfer of any involuntary patient to hospital.

"The elderly patient, also a Catholic nun, was prone to violence and suffering from severe psychosis, dementia and depression," Mr Brogden said. "She was refusing food and water and was in desperate need of hospitalisation."

St Joseph's director of nursing, Sr Pauline Richards, said she and another sister took the woman in the nursing home bus which was "most uncomfortable and undignified for the resident".

In a letter to Mr Brogden, Sr Pauline said she was saddened by the lack of assistance from both ambulance and police.

"Mental health is just another sadly neglected area of our health system," the letter read. "It is an area that requires serious reconsideration particularly in light of the increase in dementia and the difficult behaviours that accompany the disease."

NSW Premier Bob Carr said the ambulance arrived after the nuns had already left for the hospital and he regretted any inconvenience caused.

Meanwhile Catholic Health Australia's Francis Sullivan has welcomed an intervention supporting politically unpopular nursing home bonds, from Labor backbencher Craig Emerson.

The Federal Government and Opposition have ruled out nursing home bonds, for now, at least. But Mr Emerson's intervetion last week reignited debate on the proposal.

The Catholic Church is the largest owner of aged care homes in the country. Francis Sullivan, Catholic Health Australia's CEO, told ABC Radio's PM yesterday that both major parties "have been very timid on the issue of accommodation bonds in high care".

"It's time we got realistic," he said. "I think Craig Emerson's intervention, hopefully, will signal the start of a more progressive debate."

The Government lost two ministers after a bruising campaign based on claims that elderly Australians would be forced to sell the family home to secure a high care place.

The current Minister for Ageing, Julie Bishop, says the matter was dealt with in the last budget when funding for the capital needs of the aged care sector was increased by almost $1 billion over four years.

But Francis Sullivan says that's not enough.

"The calculus is very simple," he said. "When it comes to building a higher care nursing home, we either have to ask the residents to pay daily charges or an up front fee, or the Government puts in place a capital works program."

Bus used for mentally ill nun (Daily Telegraph/AAP 5/4/05)
Govt, Opposition rule out nursing home bonds (ABC Radio PM 5/4/05)
Craig Emerson proposes nursing home bonds to subsidise the poor in aged care (ABC Radio AM 2/4/05)

6 Apr 2005