Last week, elderly care registered nurse Heather Rogers said goodbye to her extended family in Queenstown.
The then-co-director of Wakatipu Home and Hospital received tributes from residents and staff as she left the facility that had become much more than a home.
The Auckland-based woman and her husband John Rogers can be credited for turning a rest home with limited capacity into a full 24-hour care centre – and in the process stemming the numbers of Queenstown’s frail elderly being forced to move to out-of-town care facilities.
The operators have moved on after two years’ running the business as the pressures and risks of running a small hospital-level care centre became too great.
In March this year, the Rogers had to tell residents, their families and staff that they were terminating their contract with the Southern District Health Board before “reaching a crisis”, Heather says.
“We didn’t have the infrastructure and resources as a small family-like operated facility to ensure continuing compliance with the registered nurse staffing – which is required for a hospital 24 hours a day.”
As the number of hospital-level care beds expanded, the Rogers struggled to find and keep registered nurses. Queenstown’s transient population was a major factor.
“We compete with other businesses that can pay more with more attractive hours and incentives, and we don’t have a bureau in town to phone in need.
“Over time, we realised it was too hard for us. We’ve managed, but that puts a lot of pressure on people who only want to work short hours. We’ve got to also watch that we’re not over-burdening our staff.”
The Rogers spent two years investigating buying the business after coming to Queenstown for a ski holiday in 2007.
When they took over from Presbyterian Support Services, there were 27 residents, two full-time registered nurses, two enrolled nurses and 15 caregivers.
At Lakes District Hospital next door, elderly needing hospital care were being exiled to other parts of the South Island, due to the lack of beds. “All through the papers was elderly having to leave Queenstown – no hospital. We discussed it and thought there might be an opportunity.”
The Rogers bought hospital beds and lifting equipment and increased staff accordingly. Old folk needing hospital-level care could remain at the home and others flocked to the facility – including some returning to Queenstown from other areas.
“There’re a lot of people who have had hospital-level care in Queenstown over the past two years,” Heather says.
Fast-forward to June 2012 and there are more than 40 caregivers and ancillary staff, two enrolled nurses and 10 mostly-part-time registered nurses. There are 35 residents, but the demand for registered nurses is greater because the facility requires a registered nurse on every shift.
New Zealand Aged Care Association chief executive Martin Taylor says running small homes in rural areas is extremely difficult nationwide, but Queenstown’s issue is exacerbated by the high cost of living and low wages.
Operators of small homes aren’t allowed to charge a premium to residents’ fees.
“If they were able to say to the community, ‘We can continue but everyone has to pay a surcharge of $5-$10 a day’, they probably could have stayed,” Taylor says.
One of the country’s largest aged care providers Bupa Care Services has bought the business off the Rogers and began running Wakatipu Home and Hospital on Sunday.
Taylor says: “I suspect that the DHB and Bupa have come to a very pragmatic arrangement either in terms of an additional fee or some sort of accommodation around staffing ratios or registered nurse hours.
“At the end of the day the goal is to have a resource for the Queenstown community. It doesn’t help anyone if the place closes.”
Bupa’s southern region operations manager Jo Powell says the large company is able to channel profit from other business areas to support smaller, less-profitable homes.
They’ll be assessing staff requirements in the coming weeks and can call on other nurses from other areas.
“We want to provide a really good service in Queenstown,” Powell says.
Bupa’s take-over is good news for the home, Heather says: “What we started will continue, in good hands. Bupa is a very reputable company and will keep the rest home and hospital operating for the future.”
Heather says she’ll miss her Queenstown “family”.
“They’re the nicest bunch of people you could ever get.”