‘Slow death’: 87yo Aboriginal artist sleeping outside with dogs amid calls for better aged care
The family of an elderly Aboriginal artist in Utopia in Central Australia says she’s afraid that the camp dogs that flock around her on the verandah where she lives might attack her.
Kathleen Ngale played a major role in the Utopia art movement of the 1970s and 1980s, and her artworks have been exhibited all over the world.
But as the ABC reported last month, she has been living in squalor on a mattress in a remote town camp with limited aged care services, unable to walk.
Relative Rosalie Kunoth-Monks said hygiene remained a problem at the homeland, and that there was a “complete neglect” of dog control in the community.
“I looked in that corner of that long verandah, and in the corner there were dog faeces,” she said.
“I think one or two [dogs] might be hers, but the rest of them just belong to the camp.
“And whilst we were there and [Ms Ngale] was lying down, but up on one elbow and trying to get food out of this bowl she was holding up to her mouth, she turned to me and said, ‘I am scared of these dogs biting my throat’.”
NDIS supplied wheelchair, but more needed
Ms Kunoth-Monks acknowledged that the issue of delivering full services to the elderly of Utopia was “not ideal”.
“I know the old lady wants to be here and hopefully to die here, but there’s none of the care and comfort, there’s little bits of comfort that come in dribs and drabs,” she said.
Since Ms Ngale’s story was first reported, she has received a wheelchair from the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and a member of the public donated a low bed and mattress so that Ms Ngale no longer sleeps on the ground.
“The wheelchair is there, and it’s a nice one,” relative Rosalie Kunoth-Monks said.
“That was one of the things that was missing, because she’s bedridden and she can’t move out into the sunshine unless you bodily carry her out.”
Ms Kunoth-Monks said she’d like to see brooms, mops and buckets supplied for carers of the elderly so their homes can be cleaned.
“Make sure the fence around and the gate is closed so the dogs can’t come in, the dogs compete for her little scraps of food,” she said.
She said the family had received numerous offers of support, including Ms Ngale’s bed, and some packages of dried and canned foods.
“I think she’s happy in the sense that she’s home, that the black components of this community are caring for and loving her, and also showing her the love and respect for an older person with the ceremonies and everything in place in her little body,” Ms Kunoth-Monks said.
“She needs that love and respect, that’s what brings people back to life and interest in their surroundings.”
Hungry dogs are owners’ problem: council
The Barkly Shire Regional Council was asked a year ago to hand over contracts after residents became unhappy with the services being delivered.
As a result, a Tennant Creek based contractor has spent 12 months covering basic services, and last month another council was tapped by the NT Government to take over for the next year.
Ms Kunoth-Monks said that in all the jostling between councils, the elderly of Utopia were “forgotten, completely forgotten”.
The Central Desert Regional Council has only been delivering services in Utopia for less than a fortnight, said services manager Glenn Marshall.
He said a volunteer group of vets from Canberra visited the region twice a year to treat mange and desex animals, with their next visit scheduled for September.
But he said that if dogs were hungry because their owners weren’t feeding them, it wasn’t up to the council to do so.
“A dog that’s hungry and trying take food off an old lady is a terrible situation, but that’s something that people in that homeland need to resolve for themselves, because it’s their dogs,” he said.
“Angry dogs is a big issue. If a dog’s going to attack someone, that’s an issue we need to be on top of, but a hungry dog is not something we drop everything and rush down to.”
‘Decrepit’ equipment to be upgraded
In an effort to improve overall standards and conditions in Utopia, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is developing a plan to teach people on the Community Development Program (CDP, or work for the dole) to be carers for the aged and to clean their homes, as well as doing semi-arid desert gardening, and food preparation and handling.
The first stage of the plan is in providing practical assistance to elderly residents, said Chris Wright from the Barkly Shire Council.
“Things like bringing them into the aged care centre out from the homelands; I know the old lady Kathleen comes in for two to three days at a time and stays with friends and family at (central homeland) Arlparra,” he said.
“The other thing is through CDP to initiate a clean-up project where the houses are being cleaned up and cleaned out.”
The Federal Government plans to oversee the whole project, he said.
“It’s a major step from the whole place being neglected and ignored at that level,” Mr Wright said.
He said he also wanted to have a gas cooktop installed at the aged care facility in Arlparra, the central homeland, adding that the current set-up “is pretty decrepit”.
“At the moment there’s nothing like that happening, we went and had a look at CDP and there’s just a bunch of people sitting around doing nothing, which was a bit disturbing,” Mr Wright said.
More money ‘not the solution’
Mr Wright said the council was looking into providing a “pre-built gazebo or lean-to type of concept” of shelter for the elderly who preferred to be outdoors, with solar lighting and an open fire pit for cooking and heating.
“It appears to be a preference everywhere I’ve been in this region… I’ve seen so many families outside with great big hunks of wood, with a fire in their driveway or backyard, preparing meals over it, despite the fact that in the houses there are kitchens and cooktops,” he said.
“I suppose that’s their habitual way of doing things, so if we can facilitate that and make it easier with elements of shelter and comfort, then there will be great outcomes.”
He said there needed to be more Federal Government audits of services to ensure they were actually being provided in remote areas.
“It’s tempting to say the solution is throwing more money at it, but I don’t think it’s the ultimate solution,” he said.
“I do believe that there’s certainly expenditure, but also much more [can be done] thorough inspections and audits at the higher levels.”