How can you call for help when you don’t have a phone?

Inadequate access to telephones in aged care facilities

In running a specialist elder abuse service Caxton Legal Centre staff regularly need to telephone clients who reside in residential aged care facilities.  This can be a laborious and even daunting task as there are often multiple hurdles to pass before Caxton staff reach the point of being able to speak to an older person on the phone.  

Helen Wallace, Senior Social Worker in Caxton’s Family, Domestic Violence and Elder Law team, is familiar with the challenges. 

“It’s common to find that there’s no advertised phone number for a specific aged care residence, so our staff have to ring a central phone number for the company which owns the residence.  The receptionist then puts us through to the residence the client lives in.  The telephone at the residence reception desk may or may not be answered – if it’s not then the whole exercise has to be repeated!” said Ms Wallace. 

“There are also matters of privacy. Some aged care staff who answer calls are quite forceful in trying to get Caxton Legal Centre staff to disclose their identity.  This is problematic for older people experiencing abuse at the hands of someone empowered by an enduring power of attorney, because the abuser may have a relationship with the residence staff. It’s also a concern when clients are experiencing a problem with the residence itself. 

“We also sesituations where the facility’s reception hands-free phone must be walked to the client’s room or the client requires assistance to get to the office to use the phone, in which case there is no privacy for the client. 

Some facilities have dysfunctional phone systems, to the point where the line repeatedly drops out, or weak mobile phone reception. Clients may become frustrated with Caxton staff when repeated calls are necessary in order to make contact. 

“The basic amenity of telephone contact for social, health or business purposes is often to denied older people at a point in their lives when they are at high risk of isolation,” said Ms Wallace.   

While Caxton Legal Centre staff persist by repeatedly ringing until contact is made, it would be easy for many people to give up.  The right to participate socially (via phone or internet) for some older people in residential settings is limited or denied when facilities fail to prioritise the resident’s rights and needs for easy phone access to the outside world.