Gunnedah has always had a reputation for investing in the care of its elderly, the people who have been the fabric of the community for generations before but now there is a mini crisis developing as aged care places diminish and families move their loved ones away for care.

In recent years the focus has been on providing childcare places, and rightly so, as women return to the workforce but now with that under control, it is possibly time for the community to once again look out for the elderly.

Government departments are working to ensure support for those who wish to remain in their own homes as long as possible but sometimes that is not possible and many families are crying out for frail-aged care for their loved ones.

Comments on social media have revealed the extent some families have to go to find care for their loved ones, often in towns far away from their community, family and friends.

All aged-care facilities in Gunnedah currently have a waiting list, with McLean Care’s director residential aged care services, Melissa Scott, saying that McLean Care continues to be proactive in supporting the ageing population in Gunnedah and works with its community organisations so that admission can continue to be undertaken as available. 

“It is important to remember that while we have a waiting list across Apex Road and Alkira, these people are not always ready to come into care and are just wishing to be notified to vacancies in preparation for the future,” she said.

“Workforce shortages are continuing to be challenging across every industry inclusive of aged care and while there is a proposal to have a mandated 24/7 registered nurse across residential aged care, our Apex Road facility already has this in place.

“This includes the ability to support our Alkira residential facility while we continue to diligently work towards registered nurse requirements.”

The Sisters of Mercy pioneered aged care in Gunnedah with the opening of an infirmary for ageing Sisters at the convent in 1939. 

In 1962 the facility was registered as a nursing home by the leader of the congregation, Sister Mary Benignus Fitzgerald, when the Nursing Home Act was introduced. The nursing home was conducted for members of the order until 1974 when women other than the Sisters were admitted. At the time there was little hostel-type accommodation available in Gunnedah for frail-aged women.

The two-storey, brick veneer building was built on the western side of the convent, fronting Henry Street, to facilitate integration with the nursing home and was called McAuley after Catherine McAuley who founded the Sisters of Mercy in Dublin in 1831 and spread to Australia in 1846 arriving in Gunnedah in 1879.

Over the years, increased pressure for continuous upgrades to the facility saw the Sisters of Mercy close the complex and transfer the licence for the 22 beds to the nursing home, which was funded by bequests of more than $2.3 million, a grant of $1.5 million from the federal government, a contribution of $500,000 from the Sisters of Mercy and more than $1 million from Gunnedah Nursing Home Association funds.

When Gunnedah Nursing Home in Apex Road was officially opened by the Governor of NSW Rear Admiral Peter Sinclair on October 5, 1991, he said “the way in which a community cared for its aged was a measure of its character – the completion of this project and Alkira Hostel a year earlier says much for the spirit of Gunnedah and the quality of its citizens”.

The official opening was a crowning point of a concerted community-based driver, headed by the late Ron Heath, which raised almost $700,000 over a three-year period for facilities which had been badly needed for many years.

The project was supported by the federal government which provided almost $1.7 million in a subsidy through the Department of Housing and Aged Care only a year or so after it had made a capital assistance grant of almost $800,000 for Alkira Hostel.

Other major contributors to the nursing home were Gunnedah Shire Council ($200,000), the Royal Freemasons’ Benevolent Institution ($120,000) and the Knights of the Southern Cross ($50,000). The Catholic community also weighed in with $50,000 over a three-year period.

Six hundred people gathered to see NSW Governor, Rear Admiral Peter Sinclair, officially open the $1.8 million Alkira Hostel on October 20, 1990, after a concerted effort over a 10-year period to provide facilities for the district’s frail and ageing population. 

The Alkira committee, headed by Jo Staughton OAM, waged a long fight to attract government funding for the project, with the committee, the auxiliary and the community raising $700,000 towards the eventual cost.

Jo Staughton’s involvement with the Alkira, an Aboriginal word meaning ‘towards the western sky,’ stemmed from her long association with the Gunnedah Hospital Board (1955-1984), which she served as chairman from 1981 to 1984.

Alkira was the centenary project for the Gunnedah District Hospital. The first meeting was held in early 1981 when an organisation known as the Gunnedah Centenary Citizens’ Care Association was formed.

The Alkira complex has 41 units comprising of single ensuite rooms. There are five sets of interconnecting rooms ideally suited for couples and two rooms are specifically designed to cater to high care/frail residents.

In days gone by, many elderly residents were cared for by their families or lived in the Tandara Wing of the hospital. As society changed and families became more transient, care of the elderly and infirm often fell to the community they lived in.

The Yallambee story began in 1962 when two groups combined to form the Gunnedah Homes for the Aged Association.

The Eventide Home (Elgin Street) and the Pensioners and Citizens’ Association applied for a grant on July 20, 1962. Principal office-bearers of the organisation were listed as Doug Heath, Albert Kelly, Lance Adams, Violet Gray and Rettie and Vickery (auditors).

Described as “a little woman with a big heart” Greta Wallace was pro-active in acquiring Crown Land on the corner of Edward Street and Links Road in the name of the trustees Violet Gray, Nan O’Keefe, Mervyn Goodwin, Arnold Gray, Lance Adams and Colin Clegg. 

On October 20, 1963, the first stage of the project was officially opened by Mayor Frank O’Keefe who said, “elderly people in the twilight of their lives, had played their part in the community and the development of the nation and should not be forgotten in their old age”.

 The name chosen for the complex was Yallambee, an Aboriginal word meaning ‘To Dwell at Ease’. It was the first facility of its kind in this region. The first two cottages, named the Greta Wallace Block, were built at a cost of 3400 pounds and the first tenants were Mr and Mrs John A. Jones and Mrs Wilmot.

In 1965 all local service clubs pledged their support, which combined with a two-for-one building subsidy from the state government and a great deal of hard work, saw funds become available to enlarge the complex.

A long-held dream was realised with the official opening of Yallambee by WC Wentworth MHR, Minister for Social Services and Aboriginal Affairs, on August 24, 1968.

While Yallambee caters for older residents able to care for themselves in small units, there is also a hostel for men.

Yallambee is seen as an example of fine community effort. It does not qualify for government subsidy and relies on rentals and donations to meet its running costs but without its volunteer base, the whole concept of community homes for the elderly would not exist. 

‘The Village’ at the Apex Rd site was established in 1984 with all 48 modern independent living units self-contained but with access to 24-hour emergency support. 

The units are particularly attractive to retirees with attractive grounds, a sense of space and freedom and lots of bird life. 

Home and community care services are available, and the beautiful surrounding gardens and green spaces are food for the soul.

There is also the Lions Community Hall within the centre of The Village for all residents and as a meeting point for several local community groups and activities.

So where to next? 

There is room to expand at all sites – Gunnedah has done it before and surely a new generation with energy and enthusiasm can step up and honour those who have given so much in years gone by. 

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