World first study reveals admitting an older relative in temporary respite care can be a deadly mistake

A world first study into deaths of Australians admitted into aged respite care – usually to provide a planned or emergency break for their carer – reveals that older people in respite care are significantly more likely to die from preventable injury causes such as falls than those who are permanent nursing home residents.

The study found that preventable deaths from choking are twice as high as for long term residential care. Other preventable deaths such as from suicide are also higher in these temporary residents.

The research – published in Age and Ageing journal, by Monash University researchers – has serious implications for the 80% of older Australians who are cared for in the community by spouses, family members and friends. Of these more than 50,000 go into temporary respite care each year.

The authors argue that there is an increased risk of death of these temporary residents because of a lack of national guideline into handover from local GP to nursing home staff and a lack of adequate orientation of both the temporary resident and the staff.

The study is published as Australians head into their annual Xmas holidays, often leaving their aged relatives in respite care in an aged care facility for an average of two weeks. In 2014, the most recent figures available, 51,000 Australians were put into aged respite care to provide their carers with a break or because of an emergency.

The study, led by Professor Joseph Ibrahim and Ms Melissa Willoughby, from the Monash University Department of Forensic Medicine, reviewed the coroner’s reports for over 21,000 residents who died in residential care from 2000 to 2013. During that period, 172 died while in respite care, mostly due to natural causes.

However, 41 people put into respite care over the study period, died from a fall – almost double the proportion of those that die from falls in permanent care. The study also found that death from other injury such as suicide and choking was significantly higher than what happens to people in long term residential care.

Professor Ibrahim said that the findings – the first in the world to review preventable deaths in respite care – counters the myth that  respite care will not cause any harm to their loved one. “In fact what we are seeing is that the incidence of some preventable deaths is twice as high as those seen in people in long term residential care,” he said.

“This is likely due to a combination of factors including gaps in communication about the needs of the individual between staff, general practitioners and family on entering and leaving respite care. As well, the change in environment and routine from a person’s home to a facility may create disorientation and confusion increasing the risk of an injury.”

Ms Willoughby warned that the number of deaths uncovered by the research, “may well be just the tip of the ice berg as we are relying on those deaths that are recorded as preventable by the Coroners Courts across all states and territories. It’s likely that a significant number are recorded as natural deaths when they are not.”

The study is published just weeks after Professor Ibrahim and his research team published a 270 page report of recommendations for the prevention of injury related deaths in residential aged care.

Read the research in full on the Age and Ageing journal website.


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