The family of an elderly Sydney woman has released distressing photos of the injuries she received inside her nursing home as the spotlight continues to shine harshly on aged care.
WARNING: This article contains graphic images
The images show 82-year-old Margaret Heffernan, who suffers from dementia, with dark purple and black bruises across her face and on both of her upper arms.
Mrs Heffernan does not remember the incident, which went unwitnessed in her south-west Sydney nursing home in January.
Management at the nursing home determined Mrs Heffernan’s injuries were the result of a fall, but her family said they feared she was assaulted.
“If you look at some of the bruising it’s probably more consistent with somebody holding her,” Mrs Heffernan’s son, Darrell Heffernan, told nine.com.au.
“How can you fall and then end up with bruises on both of your arms?
“I’m not a forensic scientist, but if someone analysed that you would say that she was being held by either arm and then headbutted or pushed into a wall or something.”
Mr Heffernan said his family’s distress was compounded by the fact that nursing home staff did not seek medical help for his mother or contact anyone in the family until the next day.
“It happened late at night so they just put a bandage on her head and put her back to bed,” Mr Heffernan said.
“It wasn’t until the next staff member came in for their shift in the morning that my sister was called, about eight or nine hours later.
“My sister came in and called for an ambulance straight away and the ambulance officers were just in shock.”
A month later, in February, Mrs Heffernan was injured in a second incident, with bruising found on her arms and back.
Auburn police investigated both incidents, Mr Heffernan said, but did not pursue any charges.
“From the police officer’s point of view, because there were no witnesses and because my mother has dementia, they had no-one to get a statement from. There were also no cameras in the hallway.”
The Aged Care Complaints Commissioner also investigated Mrs Heffernan’s case, after the family made an official complaint.
In its report, the commissioner noted the lack of evidence to suggest an assault had taken place, and that police had dropped the case.
“While we acknowledge how concerning it must have been to feel that your mother was not safe at the service, we have examined all available evidence and cannot conclusively establish that the cause of your mother’s bruising was an assault,” the report, seen by nine.com.au, stated.
The investigation found nursing home staff had failed to follow protocol by not calling for an ambulance and waiting until the next morning to contact Mrs Heffernan’s family.
However, staff had since been counselled, and the nursing home had also installed extra CCTV cameras in response to the incidents, the report said.
While the family was pleased more CCTV cameras had been installed, Mr Heffernan said there were several other issues the nursing home needed to address, one of the most vital being understaffing.
Mr Heffernan said his family had noticed a decline in the quality of care his mother received at the nursing home in the four years she had been living there, in particular during the last two years when new owners had come on board.
“When she first went in there, the residents would go out on bus trips to the Auburn Botanic Gardens. They would keep them active,” he said.
“But these days a lot of that has been removed and they are just keeping them in the room and there is no mental or physical stimulation for them. In a way that is a degree of abuse.”
“What they are doing is basically running it as a business. So part of that is reducing the costs of the overheads at the expense of the people who are in these facilities.”
Mr Heffernan said the family were still considering whether to move his mother to another nursing home.
“The problem with that is we have to find a home that is suitable and then there is also no guarantee that it’s going to be better than what you’ve got. We could be putting her somewhere which is worse than where she is at,” he said.
Mr Heffernan said he was moved to speak out about his mother’s experience in response to Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement of a Royal Commission into aged care following appalling cases of abuse of elderly people.
“When I look at my mum, I don’t just see her, I see all the other people that are in those homes as well. In fact, it could even be me one day sitting in one of those homes. Something has to be done to make these wrongs right,” Mr Heffernan said.