Flett-Penny-Dr-Jan450x280 Sometime in the middle of March, Dr Penny Flett will hand over her Brightwater CEO keys to Ms Jenny Lawrence after 29 years but don’t call it retiring. Not only does Penny think the term “silly” and “anachronistic” but, as those who know her already understand, it’s also way off the mark. The work – and passion – will continue.

“Brightwater is such a big and complex organisation. It encompasses aged care, disability, brain injury, health, research and teaching. When I think where we’ve come from when I first arrived 29 years ago – those two big nursing homes that were the Homes of Peace – it’s been a remarkable journey.”

“I’m proud to be passing it on to someone who will be taking it further and a little sad because it’s the people who make an organisation – the people we’re here for and the people I work with. I shall miss all of them. This is a complicated business and a business of high worth but fundamentally it’s all about people and I’ve learnt so much from them.”

Fears and opportunities

But it may not have been where she dreamed of being as a medical student four decades ago. Indeed, it’s a universe away.

“I don’t think many of us knew where we’d end up. I didn’t think I’d be running a complex business; or running a laundry in a competitive market; or organising research, or tackling governments and sticking my neck out when things weren’t quite right; if I knew that I would have trembled at the knees and done something else.”


Former Chief Scientist Prof Lyn Beazley donated $50,000 of her Governor’s Giving Award (as well as encouraging the Southern River Rotary Club to match the amount) to help fund research at Oat St. Lyn is pictured here with Dr Penny Flett and an Oat St resident.

“But you don’t know and that protects you and leaves your future open according to the opportunities that present themselves and my career has been wonderful. Brightwater has been a place where I dared to dream because I wasn’t constrained by what people usually expect of medicine and doctors.”

The aged care sector has always had its challenges and never more so than the looming ‘baby boomer bubble’, the challenges of which, Penny says, are evolving so fast that even the government has to confess it can’t plan successfully.

“Personally I find that exciting in itself because it is down to human beings to devise what to do.”

While Penny will take a step back from the frontline, she says she’s eager to return to medicine and her clinical interests – “things I have had to forgo for a long time.” Penny will in fact be hands-on at a facility she campaigned for and achieved 23 years ago.

Ahead of the game

“Developing brain injury rehabilitation programs was a dream. Most people didn’t understand that we were getting incredible results with brain injured people long after they had left hospital. Brain plasticity is the big thing now but we’ve been doing it for 23 years when there was not that much support for it.”

Penny is of course referring to the Brightwater Oats St residential rehab facilities, which put interdisciplinary treatment at the forefront.

“Oats St is a special place of huge courage. I’m inspired each time I go there. How these people can find the courage to do what they do is a lesson for all of us.”

Brightwater Oat St began when Penny came across a number of head-injured young people institutionalised at the Homes of Peace who were improving without treatment.

“The medical wisdom of the day was that after a severe brain injury, if you didn’t make significant progress in the first six months, certainly after two years, that was it. I wanted to do something concrete.”

So one thing led to another, and with some assistance from the Health Department, the then Health Minister Ian Taylor and others advocating, WA Health bought the old Oats St private hospital in East Victoria Park.

Dream comes true

“I wasn’t convinced at first – it was very ‘hospitally’ and I didn’t believe these people had any chance to improve in an institutional setting, my organisation or any other. So Oat St was vastly remodelled into three eight-bedroom houses; each with front doors and domestic scale living spaces. I then advertised for staff who could trust me, took away the uniforms and set up a rehab program where every person who came could set their own goals and we’d all set out to achieve them as a team.”

“It was revolutionary. We had therapists of all kinds – physio, OT, speech, psychology, social work and care

workers – all prepared to throw in their lot with us. We worked as a truly interdisciplinary team before anyone invented the term.”

“We set out to give these people the chance to recover in a domestic environment where they were learning (and relearning) to do everything to get back in control of their lives. If it took two years or more, they were given the chance to let their brains recover and come to terms with that catastrophic thing that had changed their lives forever and learn to live again, from the ground up, and then to ultimately leave.”

“We are fortunate to live at this time of immense medical, genetic and technical knowledge, but it is also creating disruption in a system that is already under pressure, so consumers and providers have to adjust. The marketplace is shifting like you wouldn’t believe – it is becoming a commercial marketplace where NFPs will need to carefully define what their roles are.”

“But NFPs will continue to do a lot of what others won’t, so how we survive in a commercial marketplace is another challenge. Hospitals think they are the ones doing the acute care but by the time people come into nursing home care, they are very acute. The sooner we get together on that bridge between acute and long-term care, the better.”

People staying longer at home, creates its own set of problems. Penny is not certain Australia has the necessary accommodation solutions for that yet.

“People need to live in an environment that enables them. If that can be achieved they can successfully and happily stay at home longer without suffering the indignities of not being able to do things. The only sleeper in that scenario is loneliness and as a society we will need to react to that with a shift in values around ageing that encourages the elderly to be a vital part of the community.”

Family ties

With a move towards part-time work, Penny is looking forward to enjoying the next phase of family life with a new grandson already claiming time with Granma.

“I want to have the time to enjoy and contribute to his childhood and there are a thousand other things I want to do. I love my quilting, and art and I’m determined to learn a musical instrument. I also want to spend time with my husband (former DG and pathologist A/Prof Peter Flett). We have both worked very hard in our professional careers, with not much time to spare, so we’re both looking forward to having some flexibility to enjoy ourselves until we reach 100.”

“In 2050, there are going to be 50,000 centenarians in Australia, and I aim to be among them.”

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