When a familiar face walked into the shop where Maria Berry was working, she had no idea that striking up a conversation with an old acquaintance would lead her in a new direction.

That old acquaintance was Marie Marotta, then the project officer for Improving Care for Older People in the Hume region. The pair had met many years before, when Marie was a social worker in the hospital where Maria was having a child. Maria and Marie chatted and caught up, and Maria shared some of her recent experiences as carer for her mother while in and out of hospital.

Maria had found her mother’s “hospital experience just horrid.” She felt there had been a lack of communication and that information was uncoordinated and difficult to access. Maria found it particularly upsetting that she had not been notified for some time after her mother had broken her hip while in hospital. Maria saw this as a culmination of a number of adverse events stemming from a failure to practice person centred care.

“Her buzzer had been taken off her because she was ringing the bell too often. And I think the reason why she might have been ringing the bell too often was one, her pain. It still was not under control,” says Maria. “Sometimes I'd walk in and… she hadn't had enough to drink and things like that, so ... there was the pain, there was the urinary tract infection, and all of that, I think, didn’t help the situation with Mum becoming distressed and ringing a bell.”

“She’s a carer, she’s articulate. She’s passionate, she knows how things ought to be for older people in hospital.”

At the time, Alfred Health was developing a video resource on behalf of the Department of Health about improving care for older people in hospital, based on Best Care for Older People Everywhere: The Toolkit 1. The video resource was part of the sustainability strategy for the project, ensuring the lessons from The Toolkit would be accessible to a wide audience and beyond the period of the project’s funding.

The project advisory group sought the views of clinicians, patients and carers from across Victoria. Others interviewed about their experiences shared similar stories about lack of communication and having their views overlooked. As Marilyn, a patient interviewed in the resource says, “the feeling you get is that you’re not a person at all; you’re just another thing that’s in there, or another condition, that you’re there for them to treat and get better and get home quickly.”

The film features clinicians, patients and carers from across Victoria talking about care of older people in hospital and preventing functional decline. The emphasis is on person centred care and what that means, both for those working in hospital and for patients receiving care. The importance of being treated with dignity and being seen as a person are themes continually raised by consumers and carers in the film. Communication is also a key theme, and the difference good communication between staff and patient and their carers can make to a person’s experience and recovery.

For Maria, sharing some of her experiences of her mother’s hospital care was in many ways a difficult experience, but ultimately rewarding. As Maria says, “it ignited this passion… to be part of a community that says this is not right.” This new found passion has led Maria on a journey to become deeply involved in improving care for older people across the health sector.

Following her involvement with the Alfred Health film and with encouragement from Marie, Maria contacted Catherine O’Connell, Executive Director of Clinical Operations at Albury Wodonga Health. Catherine asked Maria to address the Acute Care Board about her mother’s care and the need for a more person-centred approach.

Catherine also invited Maria to become a representative on the health service’s Consumer Advisory Committee. The Consumer Advisory Committee works collaboratively with the health service, integrating the perspectives of consumers into the practice of the service. Maria has found her involvement to be valuable and rewarding, but has not stopped there.

Maria has also become involved with the Health Issues Centre, an independent organisation advocating for improvements to the health care system from a consumer perspective. She is also working with Social Connections, a project Marie is coordinating as part of the Hume Integrated Aged Care Plan, as a consumer representative on the project’s advisory group.

Full of ideas and passion, Maria continues to have new ideas about ways to improve older people’s experience of the health and aged care systems in her region. She is constantly making new connections with people she meets and finding new avenues to advocate on behalf of older people.

As Marie says, “She’s a carer, she’s articulate. She’s passionate, she knows how things ought to be for older people in hospital.” Uncovering these talents has been another lasting legacy of the project.

1. The current edition of this resource is Older people in hospital.