This morning I opened the door to the SMH’s screaming headline “Owners have record of failure” – by renown journos Linton Besser and Saffron Howden.

It was all downhill from there.

The front-page story was about the terrible nursing home fire in Sydney’s West – now said to have more than a dozen old people in serious condition in hospital and five deaths.  The story is at once awfully sad and also a tale of heroism and bravery that ensured that the casualty list was not longer.

However the tone of Besser and Howden’s piece is unrelentingly accusative –pointing the finger at the Quaker’s Hill nursing home – and its parent organisation Domain Principal Group – owned by, AMP Capital Investors.

Amazing, it was that within 20 hours of the blaze being reported, the police arrested a male staff member and charged him with four, then five counts of murder.  They had some fairly solid clues – that the fire broke out in two places – suggesting that this was no accident.  And second that it happened just before five am – calling into question who would be up around in a secure facility at that time.

My criticism of Besser and Howden’s article is that they seek to hang the nursing home and it’s parent organisation for many trivial reasons as well as because of a previous problem three years ago when ten old people died from gastroenteritis in another Domain Principal nursing home.

I need to put my credentials on the table here.  My 87 year old mum has been in care in a nursing home for nearly six years – first with dementia, then latterly also with frailty – she can no longer walk, stand or sit up un aided and she has to be fed, bathed, cared for medically, dressed, toileted, undressed and helped into bed every day.  FM’s dad is 85, is in another nursing home and has much the same care needs.  We visit every fortnight. So I have some experience in the field.

When old people can no longer feed themselves, perhaps cannot chew or swallow reliably and are incontinent – as well as having unreliable immune systems, they are always at high risk of gastroenteritis, no matter how strict the nursing home’s hygiene protocols.  More often than not, infections are brought into nursing homes by visiting relatives who do not use the handwash provided, do bring in food treats and certainly do not wear sterile gloves as the staff do.  In our folks’ time as residents, we have seen three outbreaks of gastro in the two locations – providing care for about 250 people.  There were thankfully no deaths as a result of these outbreaks, probably due to strict quarantine – no visits unless these were absolutely necessary – and mandatory disinfection of visitors’ hands.

This is impressive care – particularly when you realise that demented people with incontinence can act in ways that are highly counterproductive to safe hygiene.

But returning to the SMH article.  Besser and Howden cast aspersions on the Quaker’s Hill nursing home and the parent organisation for various failures in government inspections including not having background checks on prospective staff that were valid – and revalidated every three years including proof that staff had no convictions for murder or any form of assault.

There are two things that need to be said about this.  First, it is incredibly challenging for nursing homes to recruit carers – first, nurse-qualified carers (who can earn a lot more money working through agencies temping in hospitals) are always in very short supply and less qualified people who are amongst the lowest paid individuals in the workforce – who have to work shifts and do personal hygiene tasks for old people that would turn most relative’s stomachs are not exactly beating the doors down demanding jobs.  The people who work there are in my estimation and experience, mostly saints.

Second, a police check that an individual has a “clean” record can take an eternity – especially when you realise that many of the carers come from overseas and take these jobs because they do not have a huge amount of choice.  If I was a nursing home manager, with a desperate need for staff now – because I have patients who need care now – and not in six months, I’d take new people on, train them and manage them carefully and let the police do what the police do – in their own time.  They have no choice.

Moreover, a police check that says a person has a clean record – so far – does not predict that a person will never go bananas tomorrow or the next day – which could well be the case with the alleged killer in custody for the Quaker’s Hill fire.  Arsonists are usually not the outgoing socially aggressive violent types.

These kinds of regulatory inspections are risk minimisation exercises – and nothing more.  They are not in any way iron-clad guarantees that will always prevent bad things from happening.

The last bit of ridiculous trash reporting was, in my opinion, the assertion that in the previous case of deaths from this unrelated, three year old gastroenteritis outbreak, the cause was unproven, but there was a suggestion that there might have been a strong association with eating pureed food (what like a huge proportion of old people with dementia who can no longer chew ?) …. and – and get this, that the residents who died from gastroenteritis “were already deteriorating from their underlying health conditions” – like the ones that landed them in the nursing home in the first place ?  Give me strength !

Besser and Howden finished by saying that the management of the nursing home and the parent organisation had cancelled the planned meeting with the SMH and were refusing to comment. Surprising ?  Not when the police and coroner are involved – or when the reporters churn out such unhelpful rubbish.

I’m not suggesting that the nursing home is definitely blameless.  I just don’t know.  Neither would I seek to be unsympathetic to those who lost their lives, their loved ones or those who suffered terrible injuries.  I do think that tremendous praise should go to the fire-fighters, police, staff and neighbours who saved so many lives.  These folk did a magnificent job.  The same cannot be said about the SMH reporters.