Martin and Sarah Warner’s business, Home Instead Senior Care, began in 2004.

The business now has a national network of 25 independently owned and operated offices in Australia with over 1,600 employees.

Architecture and Design spoke to them about caring for their parents, how their non-aged care careers helped them today and the future of aged care in Australia.

You’ve both had experience caring for your elderly parents. What were some important things you learned from this?

Prior to establishing Home Instead Senior Care in Australia, we did not appreciate or pick up on the signs of the ageing of our parents. Sarah’s father had dementia, and in the early stages of this disease we put his forgetfulness down to his personality. Looking back, we had a limited understanding about dementia at the time.

Eventually we also discovered that her mother was ‘covering’ for his change in behaviour. So our key learnings were that adult children are not sufficiently informed of the signs of ageing, and that parents don’t want to discuss ageing with their children.

Today, the situation is very different and we focus heavily on this topic to educate families.

Another key learning is to ensure a safe home that works for a senior. My mother is now permanently in a wheelchair and we needed to adapt the house and fittings to make it easy for her to remain living at home. For example, wider doorways, ramps, drawers for storage and easy to turn on taps. This has made a fundamental difference to her life.

Martin, your career started in hospitality. Why and how did you make the transition to senior care?

Hospitality led me into managing a chain of corporate-owned restaurants and ultimately to managing franchised restaurants and franchised businesses. The transition to senior care was a magic moment. I was seeking a more meaningful career where I could make a difference in people’s lives and started studying for a masters in Health Services Management when we saw the opportunity with Home Instead Senior Care to establish the business in Australia.

I was the primary carer for my disabled mother, had a strong franchise experience background and understood the aged care/health services challenges ahead, so this opportunity suited me very well. 

Were there any key things you were able to use from your hospitality career in your consultancy work?

The transition felt very natural because like hospitality, this is all about interacting with people, but more so because this industry requires a compassionate perspective on life. Importantly, the margins are tight in hospitality as they are in senior care, so it is important to run both an efficient and an effective business to respond to the needs of clients and their family.

Sarah, where did your interest in senior care come from, given your background as a librarian and market researcher? 

My grandmother had lived with us during my teenage years and I saw her decline cognitively, then I was involved in supporting my mother who had a degenerative disease (Parkinson’s) and my father who sadly declined cognitively at the end of his life, so you could say I was aware of senior conditions from a young age.

However, it wasn’t until I was working in market research for the health information technology sector that my understanding of ageing issues developed. I was involved with a number of projects to increase the uptake of technology in residential and community care.

How has senior care changed in Australia in the past 20 years?

The industry is in the middle of the most significant change in 20 years. Until very recently the industry focus was inward looking, made predominantly to the government-funded system that gave control of funds to the providers.

Since the Productivity Commission Enquiry into the industry in 2011 – Caring for older Australians – the government focus has dramatically moved towards our philosophy of care, namely ‘person centred care,’ whereby control of government funds is now with the senior and their family, so they can now have greater choice over the services, and service providers, they wish to choose. 

In addition, we have responded to a latent demand for private care services. With the implementation of income testing for home care services, many seniors were now not eligible for government services or simply prefer to have greater choice, control and extra services.

Government-funded home care services have also always been limited and as most people wish to continue to live at home as they age, the aged care market has started to accelerate as Australia’s population ages.

How do you think it will change in the next five years?

The industry has already begun to consolidate with less efficient organisations moving away from providing home care. This trend will continue and those organisations who provide high quality services with a consumer focus will flourish in a more competitive environment