Churchill fellow to help ageing Australians with intellectual disabilities

Published 30 July 2012

A University of New England health researcher has been awarded a Churchill Fellowship for a project , aimed at improving services for ageing Australians with an intellectual disability.

The Fellowship will take Dr Stuart Wark to the United States and the UK in June and July next year to examine the best models of care for such people in those countries – “models,” he said, “that are cost-effective, and that could make a difference, particularly in rural areas”.

“In the past 100 years the life expectancy of people with an intellectual disability has risen from less than 10 years to more than 60,” Dr Wark said. “When they need the additional support associated with ageing, there’s no funding available. While the States say that this is simply an ageing issue, the Commonwealth argues that it’s still in the domain of ‘disability’. It’s difficult to access mainstream ageing support for these people in rural areas, and the disability sector is struggling to deal with this new issue.”

“The purpose of this project is to examine different models of practice in the United States and the UK, where governments and services have been addressing this issue in recent years,” Dr Wark said. “It’s a matter of seeing what models could be translated to an Australian context. For example, there’s a palliative care network for people with intellectual disabilities in the UK that could work very well in rural Australia.

“On the basis of this study, I hope to be able to recommend to government better structures of support at a local service level, taking into account the varying needs of rural and metropolitan support agencies.”

“Being based in regional Australia has given me a particular focus on the applicability of such models to rural and remote regions,” he said.

Dr Wark has been working with people with disabilities for the past 20 years. He is currently Executive Manager of a support team at The Ascent Group – an organisation that provides services for 300 people in Armidale and the wider New England region. At UNE, he is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow within the newly-formed Collaborative Research Network (CRN) for Mental Health and Well-being in Rural and Regional Communities. He expressed his appreciation of the support of Professors Rafat Hussain and Trevor Parmenter from UNE’s School of Rural Medicine, and Kevin Mead, CEO of The Ascent Group, who all supported his Churchill Fellowship application.

As a member of teams comprising researchers from UNE and the Universities of Sydney and Newcastle, he’s involved in a number of projects investigating the effects of ageing on people with a disability, and differences in those effects between people living in metropolitan and rural areas. “The CRN projects are not only establishing strong links between universities,” he said, “but we’re also starting to see a lot of collaboration between the academic and service sectors.

“The Churchill Fellowship ties in nicely with this research.”