Short Story

I have written before about the bureaucracy of our alleged Aged ‘Care’ System – you can read those posts here, here and here. Oh, and again here – plus there is another story to tell but I have been so traumatised by it I can’t bring myself to tell it yet.  Here is my take on the stories one often reads in newspapers about elderly people being found dead inside their own homes, having lived in ‘squalor’. I now know that this is because they gave up trying to get help because it is so complicated and inefficient, or died while on hold on the phone.

The end.

Father’s Day again

Father’s Day has come and gone again.  My Dear Old Dad has been a father for 61 years now. It would have been 63 but for the death of his and mum’s first child.

For Dad right now, and me, every day is Father’s Day!  Sometimes it’s also a bit like Groundhog Day, but the actual Father’s day is special.  Being a Sunday, the best gift he can have is to have me join him at church, followed by morning tea with his friends there.  He joined us for dinner so we could also celebrate Father’s day with my husband and children.

I am conscious that at my age, I have many friends who are now without their fathers, or who do not have a good relationship with their father, and Father’s Day must be difficult.  and I will be one of those people one day, which while inevitable, makes me feel very sad.  I can’t imagine a world without him in it.

Father’s Day makes me ponder what it is to be a father.  My favourite quote is from someone tragically named Wade Boggs, who, it seems to me was destined for a job as a plumber, but was in fact a famous baseball player.  He once said “Anyone can be a father, but it takes a special person to be a Dad”.  And my Dad is a special person.

We didn’t realise it at the time, but we grew up in a very forward thinking environment. Workplace flexibility and working from home are buzz words in the workplaces of today, but with a parish priest for a father, our Dad had his office at home.  He worked from home (although was often out of course), but of the many childhood memories I have, sometimes having afternoon tea with Mum and Dad after school, or having Dad pick us up from school, are highlights.

Of course having a father at home meant that our mother didn’t ever have to say “wait until your father gets home”, and I knew I was in trouble when I was summoned to Dad’s study.  The worst punishment was being told by Dad that he was disappointed in me.  I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

Going away for weekends was something we did not do, with church services on Sundays. But when we went on holidays, Dad was really on holidays.  We grew up with no mobile phones or internet, so our holidays involved visiting with cousins, going to the beach, and once, what seemed like an interminable caravan holiday (scarred me for life).  But holidays always  included cards, board games, and french cricket.  And lots of laughter.

Now that Dad is 95, who knows how many Father’s Days we have left.  So we must treasure every moment, even when it is upsetting or stressful, caring for him.  I have to remind myself that no matter how hard it is for me (and my sister) from time to time, it must be so much harder for him, becoming frail and dependent.  I think Dad would agree with Euripides (Greek poet, not a plumber nor a baseball player) that:

“To a father growing old, nothing is dearer than a daughter”

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The Nervous Nineties

Cricket lovers will understand this expression. The nervousness of a batsman or batswoman making it to ninety runs, hoping to score a century, not out. The anxiety of hitting the ball and getting singles. 91. 92. 93 etc. Each one more difficult and nerve-wracking than the last.   I imagine this is what it must be like in your nineties, although some whose health is not the best may not wish to reach their century.

When Dad was heading for 90, he resisted plans for a 90th birthday party on the basis that he might not still be here.  This is a recurring theme, so convinced is he that his life span is all but over, all indications to the contrary.  But a party was had and it was a wonderful celebration at our home on our patio and under a marquee – high tea, with proper bone china cups (tea always tastes better from bone china), mum’s collection of tea spoons, with an endless supply of cake, sandwiches, and scones. Most importantly, many family members and friends were present for the celebration.

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It’s not often my dad is lost for words, but on this occasion he was, no doubt emotional that mum was not there to celebrate with him, but also to see so many people there that day, celebrating with him and wishing him well.

That was 5 years ago, and this year, like then, Dad, even six weeks beforehand, resisted any celebration of his 95th, on the basis that he might not be here. This year’s birthday was a much simpler affair – a morning tea after church, dinner with us at home, and then dinner out a few nights later on his actual birthday.

 

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Dinner at the Golf Club 8 August 2017

He still has the same gorgeous smile, and enjoys the many bottles of scotch he receives as gifts. That sounds worse than it is. He enjoys one glass of scotch late in the afternoon and his birthday and Christmas presents of scotch last him for months!  There are very few novel gifts one can purchase someone who has everything he needs.

Imagine what someone of his age has seen:

Living through the depression
Transport moving from bicycle to car – and now the news talks of driverless cars!
Plane flight going from a luxury to everyday
Man landing on the moon – and passenger space travel a real possibility
A World War and the horror of that war, and its aftermath
Television as entertainment in addition to the ‘wireless’
Computers and mobile phones (no phones attached to the wall now!)
The abdication of King Edward VIII, the coronation and death of King George VI, the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth – he may well see Prince Charles become King
The fall of the Berlin Wall
Twenty-three Australian Prime Ministers (four of those in the last 10 years alone!)
Twenty Queensland Premiers

I can’t work out how many elections in which he has exercised his democratic right to vote.

So much change and development has occurred in his lifetime, and with the pace of change accelerating, he is sure to see much more change in years to come.

The one thing that has not changed is his vocation and he recently celebrated 65 years ordination to the priesthood.

So here he is in his 96th year – will he crack the ton and get his letter from the Queen?  Or perhaps it will be King Charles? Time will tell, but every run he adds to his score will be celebrated.

Time does not heal all wounds

C.S. Lewis once said that “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear”.  Sixty three years ago today, my parents’ first baby was born and died.  Her name was Ann.

I can’t imagine that kind of grief.  My mother was younger then than my own daughter is now.  She must have been filled with fear each and every day of each pregnancy and though each hour of labour before delivering each of her three subsequent babies. As I’ve written before my mother never spoke of this event, and grieved silently in all the years that followed.  Dad said that sometimes she just stayed in the bedroom all day – that she remembered the detail vividly.  I often wonder how Mum coped with so many people no doubt telling her that the death of her baby was ‘God’s will’.  She must have wanted to scream, but instead kept that grief bottled up.

When Mum died, it was like a cork stopper came out of a bottle and Dad was able to talk about that horrific events of that day and beyond.  And all the years that followed.

Part of caring for an elderly parent is more about caring about them – and that means caring is sometimes doing nothing but sitting and listening and giving a long hug, even if you’ve heard the story before.

Thinking a lot about both my mum and my dad today.

Dad at springsure

Confusion reigns supreme

Every once in a while,  I have a small worry that Dear Old Dad is becoming forgetful.  At almost 95 that is to be expected – his forgetfulness, rather than my worry.

Yesterday, in the rush of getting ready to have friends over for lunch, I was telling my husband about a recent episode of confusion, when Dad had forgotten arrangements we had made.  I was telling the story while moving about the kitchen and dining room.  As I opened the door to the sideboard, still recounting the story and my worry, I found myself staring into the cupboard and asking “what was I supposed to be looking for in here?”. I stopped talking and looked up at my husband’s raised eyebrows.

I guess I should be more worried that I can forget a thought from two minutes ago rather than a 95 year old forgetting a conversation from a week ago.

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You can’t pour from an empty cup

It would be good to remember where I first heard this expression – which basically means that if you don’t take care of yourself first, you can’t really take care of others.  Which, for a long time, I thought made one (me) selfish.  In recent times a few very dear friends have been urging me to take some time out, but I have been loathe to do so without someone in place to look after Dad.  My last holiday, at Easter was possible because my gorgeous Uncle, Dad’s brother, flew out from the UK for a visit.

Caring for someone is exhausting, both emotionally and physically, and time to oneself is important to re-charge the batteries.  I say that, from a very privileged position knowing that for many people this is just not possible.  And yet, as fortunate as I am, I find it hard to do.  I have had a gift voucher for a treatment at one of my favourite spas since my birthday in March and have only just managed to make an appointment for July.

But here I am, writing this at the beach, where I have been for two days and will be for another two, with just my husband for company.  As much as he loves the beach, and we love him, we even left the dog home with our two boys who were staying home to feed the cats.  We had an opportunity to get away for four days so we decided to do it.  Just breaking the news to Dad that I would be going away for a few days was hard, as he becomes quite anxious if I am not around.

Whoever first uttered those words in the title to this post is absolutely correct.  Two days of relaxation, sun and the sea air, and a swim in the ocean each day, feels like a tonic.  No alarm in the morning, no lists to write, things to remember, no washing, cleaning, changing ulcer dressings, cooking for DOD, etc etc etc.

What is has involved is sleeping in (to be fair, a sleep in for me now is 7.30am but that’s a victory), reading the paper in bed and not getting out of bed until 9am (bliss), cups of tea, visits to the beach, experimenting with a stand up paddle board with varied success, swimming falling off the paddle board into the icy ocean, dolphin spotting, meditating, colouring in, watching the TV, more cups of tea, and a few* glasses of wine.  It has been perfect winter weather – warm during the day, cool at night and in the mornings, clear blue skies.

Of course, to get away required the organisation and negotiation skills of a Major General, a spreadsheet, many, many phone calls, meals cooked in advance for DOD, and visitors lined up to check in on him, transport to and from church organised, bins organised to be put out, and two medical appointments made, and all of it typed up in a table for DOD to look at from time to time in case he forgot what had been organised.  But even if DOD really doesn’t like to be ‘managed’ I can rest a little easier knowing I have done all I can to make sure he is safe, fed, and looked after.

I am so grateful to my children, and my eldest son in particular who is doing a lot of the driving this weekend, my cousin and his wife who are dropping in, as well as my sister’s friend who is also dropping in. No doubt DOD will have an ample supply of jam drops and chocolate slice after the weekend.

It really does take a village, and I am very grateful for my village for enabling me to fill my cup this weekend.

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D-Day

When our eldest child finished school in 2010, we decided to torture the children by taking them overseas for a month, live in a little French village for 3 weeks, without internet or McDonalds, and enjoy a foreign culture, and learn about some World War II history.  It had been a rough year with the death of both my mother and my father-in-law in the space of five months, and the trip was welcome.  The anniversary of the Normandy landings is 6 June and since that trip I have been quite fascinated by the planning and execution of this battle, and the liberation of France.

This week is one for anniversaries of two D-Days.

My mother died on 10 June 2010.  Today is the anniversary of her death. The events of that morning are indelibly printed on my mind and it took me many months with some professional help, to stop seeing her dead body every tine I closed my eyes.  Nothing in  life, and especially no number of Law and Order episodes, will ever prepare you for having to identify the body of a loved one, or see them taken out of their home in a body bag.

I long ago stopped being sad about the sudden nature of her death – it was, as Dad said at the time, a good way to die; suddenly and without any warning.  Shocking for those left behind but a blessing for the deceased.  Dad, ever faithful, said he was grateful to God for taking Mum the way he did, as he could not have borne her becoming sick or having a stroke.  He hopes the same will happen to him.

I wonder what Mum would be like if she hadn’t died – how she would be with Dad becoming frail and worrying about him.  But they would have been together, keeping each other company.  She would have adored being a great-grandma, spoiling them in her own way by making pikelets and sprinkling sugar on them, cooking rice puddings, and making sure there were leftover rissoles in case they visited, and keeping her ‘brag book’ of photos up to date to show all the people at church.

That was not to be regrettably, although Dad is keeping his ‘brag books’ of his now two great-granddaughters.   However, I do know she would be so proud of Dad coping with all the changes in his life since she died, and hopefully proud of her children for taking care of him, and loving him the way we do.mum and dad

R.I.P Mum

Things I Do For Dad

There is a certain predictability about some of our days, which I like.  Dad goes to church Wednesdays and Sundays.  He likes to go shopping Tuesdays and Fridays –  it’s important to have fresh bananas every few days.  Once a month he goes to the library to change his library books.   The washing is done on Mondays.  Not Tuesdays, nor Wednesdays. He likes routine. As do I.

These days, I have some help from time to time with some of these activities – for example I have found a local Uber driver who does a lot of the driving to and from church, although when he can’t do this, I step in – either doing the driving myself or booking an Uber.  Dad has only given up driving behind the wheel; he still likes to drive from the passenger seat so it can be a little tedious at times.  I also have some help from a wonderful lady from Five Good Friends for a few hours each week.

There are lots of other things I do for Dad to make his life a little easier, such as:

  • Cook all his meals
  • Collect him for dinner at our house once a week
  • Prepare meals ahead of time if I am going to be away (not so often any more!)
  • Go to a shop in the next suburb to purchase the special cheese he likes and his molasses in a squeeze bottle
  • Change the dressing on his ulcer every two days, including cleaning the wound and moisturising
  • Make appointments for him
  • Take him to the doctor, dentist and other specialists
  • Do his buttons up in winter when his fingers struggle with the cold weather
  • Rub cream on his back when his skin gets dry
  • Order things he needs on-line
  • Take him shopping
  • Play cribbage every day (and lose on average 2-1 because he is frustratingly lucky – and clever)
  • Look phone numbers and other information up for him on my phone (‘that’s not just a phone is it dear?‘)
  • Listen patiently while he discusses Oscar’s eating habits, in specific detail
  • Look for Oscar when Dad thinks he has gone missing (he is always asleep somewhere, ignoring us)
  • Take Oscar to the vet and to his holiday accommodation when Dad goes away
  • Help him cut up Oscar’s chicken breast meat into precise sized pieces and put 25 pieces into individual freezer bags, ready for his evening meals
  • Deal with rodents, geckos and birds in the house (thanks Oscar)
  • Clean up the occasional Oscar vomit (see above), which is always on the carpet never on the tiles or timber floors (cats are awesome)
  • Advocate for him with doctors, government and service providers
  • Negotiate with the Insurers when they increase his insurance 30% every year
  • Take him clothes shopping (which includes helping him get changed)
  • Clean out the refrigerator
  • Put the bins out on Sunday nights (my husband and sons help with this too)
  • Fix Foxtel (his fingers sometimes accidentally change the AV source)
  • Source typewriter ribbon for him
  • Replace the correction tape in his typewriter (I need to look this up on Youtube every single time!)
  • Organise the mowing man and tradespeople
  • Take his ironing  home to be done (not by me!)
  • Make him a ginger cake or orange cake so he has an afternoon tea snack with his cup of tea
  • Act as digital carrier pigeon for correspondence with his brother in the UK
  • Post his letters
  • Take him to visit friends on occasion
  • Put his hearing aids in when I remember (so I don’t have to repeat myself three times)
  • Make lots and lots of phone calls and put together colour coded spread sheets should I get the chance to go away

Most importantly, be ready with a hug when he is feeling down.

 

 

 

 

Another trip down memory lane

One of the many privileges of caring for an elderly parent is the many memories that come up in conversation. I appreciate that those caring for parents with dementia may not have this particular pleasure. My dear old dad doesn’t have Facebook or even have a smart phone but today my Facebook memories reminded me that two years ago, Dad (then almost 93) and I travelled to Roma. 

Dad was parish priest at St Paul’s in Roma from 1962-1969, and describes it often as his and Mum’s ‘happiest parish’. He and mum had a young family, it was a vibrant country town, a beautiful cathedral-like church with a congregation that came from both town and properties outside town. They had good friends in a supportive community. 

So it was a lovely surprise for Dad to be invited almost 50 years after he left, to return to Roma to receive the debutantes. Who knew Deb balls were still a thing?  I heard him telling the story to someone just today that when he first told me that he had been invited and asked what I thought, my response was an immediate ‘Let’s go!’.  As much as I wanted to take Dad back to Roma, I was keen to see a relic from the past – the deb ball not dad’s friends.

As well as receiving the debutantes (that was an eye-opener for me – wow, just wow), Dad had the opportunity to catch up with old friends, and visit many places from his younger days, and of course visit St Paul’s.  It is the most beautiful church, and many of my memories are fond ones, even if I was very naughty.  The rectory, in my memory, had a verandah that was high off the ground.  My memory tells me this because I once cycled off it and busted my forehead.  In reality it is about 30cm off the ground.  The organ loft in the church, where I spent a lot of time sitting with my mother, was similarly not high off the ground but almost at ground level.  But the bottle trees that line the streets of Roma are still the same and just as beautiful as I remember them.

My Dad has the most beautiful smile, and I am sure his smile muscles were aching by the end of the weekend.  He still smiles when he talks about it.

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If it takes a village I’m the Mayor

As I have said before, it takes a village to care for an elderly person, but every village needs a Mayor and like it or not, I am the Mayor. I’ve never been voted in – I am the only candidate, by force of geography, in my case, and possibly a bossy personality. And probably gender, if research is to be believed.

[Actually I am also the CEO, my own Executive Assistant and oftentimes the CFO.]

A 2014 Princeton study showed that American women ‘stepped up’ twice as often as their brothers to care for elderly parents. Gender plays an important role in who cares for elderly parents. Personally, I’m surprised it took a formal study to discover this to be honest, because almost everyone I know caring for an elderly parent, whether that parent is Dad or Mum, is female. Some of those women are providing care for their husband’s parents, so being a blood relative is not even that important. Women take on the lion’s share of caring duties for the elderly. It’s the circle of life – just as you have pretty much finished caring for children – BOOM – along comes eldercare.

In the process, the emotional and often the financial, burden of caring for elderly parents falls to daughters-carers as well.

The author of the study describes how daughters feel ultimate responsibility about parent care (“But who else is going to do it?”) and also how they feel that their “legitimacy and affection are questioned if they look for alternative sources of parent care”.

“Whether the mechanism operates through internalized values of gender-appropriate behaviour or stigma for gender-deviant behaviour, either view suggests a higher base level of parent caregiving for women”

I gave up my full-time job to care for my Dad – since he stopped driving and had a fall and broke his wrist. I am not the ‘principal breadwinner’ in our household (plus Dad is not my husband’s father), so it was logical for me to do so, but it was an awful decision to have to make (for me) as I loved my work and the sense of fulfilment it gave me, but it was the right one for him. It’s not time yet for him to go into residential care. And yet I find myself still incredibly busy and exhausted. What was a ‘pop in once a day and organise dinner’ thing for dad had turned into sometimes spending four hours a day with him or doing things for him.  I am fortunate that we are in a position for me to be able to do this – many work full-time and care for elderly parents as well.

A quick scan of my friends and acquaintances in similar situations prove the point of this research – by far the majority of people caring for elderly parents are women (and no disrespect to the no doubt many men doing the hard yards, but I’m guessing they are only children or deserve a medal. Or possibly a parade in their honour.

  • The woman who took her very frail mother with her family every Christmas holidays to their beach house because her brother always made plans to go overseas at Christmas. Even on the odd occasion when he was in the country he came on holidays with them.
  • The full-time working woman with three brothers who visit their father once a week, who still does the lion’s share of care for him, including meal preparation, washing, and doctors appointments. One of her brothers lives in the next suburb to her father.
  • The full-time working woman with three children who had to move her mother to a nursing home close to her because her mother demanded to be near to her, even though she had a son, in the same town
  • The woman who purpose-built a granny flat for her mother, and cared for her for 15 years, while working, only to be threatened with legal action by her brother after their mother died because he thought their mother should have had more money in the bank, and assumed she had taken it (!)
  • The woman, whose children had all grown up and left home, whose own parents were both dead, who visited her mother-in-law daily and was almost the only visitor the woman had.

Are we ‘good’ or stupid? Do women have a level of empathy and caring missing in men? Are men only good at doing things that are of personal interest to them, or when asked? Or is this a perpetuation of the myth that women are more nurturing?  Does this also impact on the statistics for part-time vs full-time work, and contribute to the gender pay gap? If a woman earns less than her partner, it makes sense she would be the one to reduce work hours or give up work to care for a parent. Thus perpetuating the gender pay gap, which probably started when they had children.

I don’t know the answers to these questions and don’t have time to find out.  It is what it is, but I suspect most women take that attitude.

In 2015 there were over 2.7 million UNPAID carers in Australia and two-thirds of those were women, according to Carers Australia.

Statistics in Australia bear this imbalance out, even in paid employment. In 2011 the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that workers in the community service industries (which includes aged care), women form the majority of employed staff – 84% in fact, and the age profile shows that it is older women in paid employment in this segment – more than half are over 45 years of age.

Perhaps the old bloke Euripides has been right for centuries:

“To a father growing old nothing is dearer than a daughter”