9 May 2024

Canberra's aging population deserves more funding: Arthritis ACT

| James Coleman
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A swimmer in the Hydrotherapy pool

Hydrotherapy sessions, like this one run by Hartley Life Care, are a life changer for Canberra’s aging population. Photo: Hartley Life Care.

A not-for-profit charity is arguing for the ACT Government to devote more money towards the city’s ageing population, starting with hydrotherapy sessions.

Arthritis ACT, with offices based in Pearce and Bruce, is a source of help for Canberrans suffering from any chronic pain condition, including arthritis, neuropathic pain, the effects of osteoporosis, as well as fatigue conditions like Myalgic Encephalomyelitis and Long COVID.

It connects individuals with the city’s health practitioners and runs various physiotherapy and hydrotherapy sessions and exercise classes.

Hydrotherapy sessions — designed to relieve pain, reduce swelling, improve range of motion, strengthen muscles, and improve balance and general cardiovascular health — are held several times a week at public pools across Canberra, including Kingswim in Calwell and Aqua Harmony in Kambah on the south side and the pools in the University of Canberra and North Canberra hospitals.

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Due to a lack of government funding, the charity will now have to close the two southside sessions and its Pearce office.

About 200 people who attend the Kambah sessions and 80 who attend the Calwell sessions each week will be affected.

“Demand is huge,” Arthritis ACT CEO Rebecca Davey says.

“We’re closing them because it’s just so expensive to hire the pools. The reality is the cost of staffing, pool hire and all the associated costs of delivering hydrotherapy programs has risen much higher than funding has kept up, and we can’t maintain the level of service.”

The ACT Government provides about $1.58 million to organisations in the ‘Chronic Conditions Sector’ every year, including Capital Region Cancer Relief, Diabetes Australia, RSI Overuse Association, Epilepsy ACT and the Haemophilia Foundation.

Arthritis ACT currently receives nearly $600,000 a year, $250,000 of which goes toward the costs of the hydrotherapy sessions, including pool hire and staffing.

hydrotherapy pool

Kingswim in Calwell is one of two venues on the ACT’s southside that hosts Arthritis ACT hydrotherapy sessions. Photo: Manteena.

For this financial year, Arthritis ACT requested an additional $100,000 – translating to an extra $56 per session – but were effectively told “there’s no more money”.

They’ve recently raised the price per session from $6 to $8, and while Ms Davey admits they could go “a little higher”, it won’t be enough.

“All the entry fees do is pay for the equipment we need to run the sessions.”

The last increase came in 2019 after an independent review on access to local hydrotherapy services recommended the ACT Government “immediately” review its funding agreement with Arthritis ACT.

Accordingly, the charity received an extra $130,000 to run more sessions southside and make up for the loss of the hydrotherapy pool at the Canberra Hospital in Woden.

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But Ms Davey says there has been no increase since then, and what were volunteer-run sessions at the UC Hospital now require paid staff.

More broadly, she argues that the government needs to increase the funding allocated to chronic diseases to reflect the needs of Canberra’s aging population.

According to the 2001 Census, there were 25,675 people living in the ACT aged 65 or older, or 8 per cent of the total population. Ten years later, in 2021, there were 62,203 (13 per cent of the total population).

“We’re not the only organisation impacted by this,” Ms Davey says.

“Chronic disease is becoming more of a prevalent issue because people are living longer. We really need to be supporting them, and hydrotherapy is not only preventative but also provides treatment.”

woman in glasses smiling

Arthritis ACT CEO Rebecca Davey argues Canberra’s aging population warrants more funding. Photo: Arthritis ACT.

The ACT Government has been “in conversations” with Arthritis ACT about their “funding challenges” in the lead-up to the next Budget, according to a spokesperson.

“The ACT Health Directorate will continue to work closely with Arthritis ACT to support their valuable work delivering services to Canberrans,” the spokesperson says.

The government acknowledges hydrotherapy is “a valued service for a number of health conditions” and says the new $8.5 million public hydrotherapy pool in Tuggeranong, due to open in the first half of 2025, will help Canberrans “access the right healthcare, at the right time, closer to home”.

The ACT Government is also welcoming feedback on its next ‘Age-Friendly City Plan’ for 2025 to 2035, “about what is working well and what can be improved to enhance the lives of older Canberrans”.

For now, Arthritis ACT will continue running the hydrotherapy sessions at the UC and North Canberra hospitals.

Mr Davey says it has also come to an arrangement with Kingswim in Calwell to continue running sessions for a while longer, “but it’s not permanent”. The charity is also “in discussions” with Aqua Harmony in Kambah.

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I’ve been doing the hydrotherapy sessions for a year now and they have been a wonder. I’ve so much more nobility and reduced pain. Arthritis ACT are a great organisation.

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