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.



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”










Residential Aged ‘Care’

I write this in a state of mild rage and frustration.

Over the last two weeks The Australian newspaper has published articles about the state of the Aged Care system in our country.  Last weekend Rick Morton wrote an article titled ‘Adrift in the Uncertain Market For Aged Care’ and this weekend Andrew Burrell wrote ‘Families Demand Action over aged Care Standards‘. This article is currently paywalled but I will link to it in due course.

It seems the corporatisation of the residential aged care sector, much like the child care sector ( and I use the word ‘care’ lightly in both cases), has resulted in reduction of qualified staff, appalling staff patient ratios, and a quest to make millions out of  people least able to speak for themselves, in order to please shareholders.

Some of the examples in this morning’s paper and other investigations are horrendous:

  • A woman, whose husband has dementia, drives 40 minutes each way several times a week to visit him, and found him one day, half-naked, sitting in a chair covered in his own excrement.  He was not in his room – he was in a public area.  She doesn’t know how long he was there.
  • The same woman found him one morning in a sodden incontinence pad, and blood on his sheets from a tear in his scrotum.
  • Elderly patients left on toilets for hours due to staff shortages and fed pureed party pies in order to cut costs.  You can read that horror story here.
  • A resident having urine soaked sheets thrown at him; a resident being made to walk, while screaming in pain, with an undiagnosed broken thigh bone; a resident with undiagnosed pneumonia being taken home only to die a week later.  Those stories from 2015 are here
  • A resident in his mid-eighties left in urine soaked chairs, bed and adult diapers several times, then being sent off to have a circumcision as he kept getting urinary tract infections, and the facility’s doctor thought they would decrease if he was circumcised. The surgery took place while his penis was infected.  He died in agony 6 weeks later after contracting blood poisoning.  He was my maternal grandfather.

Sadly, a Google search with the words ‘Aged Care horror stories’ brings up pages of results.

My own observational experience, as Power of Attorney for my former neighbour, who is now in a nursing home, is not pleasant.  It is a lovely looking facility – lovely grounds, modern and large rooms, aesthetically pleasing.  But they are chronically under-staffed and in the last two years staff have changed so significantly that I rarely see or speak to the same person twice.  Most of the staff are ‘aged care workers’, and English is rarely their first language.  If I can barely understand them, how can elderly, often hard of hearing residents cope?  In a 6 week period she went from being able to get around on her own on a wheely walker, to requiring a hoist to get her from the bed to the bathroom.  Once in the toilet, she then had to wait for someone to remember to come back and get her off again.  No one had called me, but it was obvious to me something significant had happened to her in that 6 week period to cause such a change in mobility.

I firmly believe that there needs to be an emotional connection between the elderly person and the carer or carers in order for appropriate care to be given.  All of the stories above are from relatives of the resident – what happens to those who have no one to look after them, or advocate for them?

This is why I am determined to keep my own father in his own home for as long as humanly possible.  A nursing home is absolutely a last resort.  With the help of providers of in-home care services, this will be possible.  For how long, I don’t know. But I hope and pray that his last days will not be spent in any discomfort feeling like no one cares, while shareholders of listed companies in the business of aged care check the stock market every day.