Our parents bring us into the world and nurture us through the first part of our lives. As life comes full circle, it’s only right that we should want to help them exit this world with love, comfort and dignity. But… what precisely does that mean for us?
The facts of our ageing population are no secret. More Australians are living longer – a child born today is likely to live a few years longer than one born just a decade ago – and the number of Australians aged 65 and over is projected to almost double over the next 20 years. Rising health costs for the elderly pose a serious long-term challenge for our nation. And, despite having few ground rules to follow, our society is hugely dependent on family members to care for the sick, frail and elderly.
That’s the “big picture”, but for a more personal perspective, you need only look around you. One in every eight Australians is a carer – and I happen to be one of them.
The hardest choices
After making the difficult decision to put my mother in care some years back, when Alzheimer’s struck, my siblings and I recently began helping my father recover from open-heart surgery. At 81, he remained frail post-operation and admitted that he found it hard to make decisions. “I’d be lost without my children’s help, and I don’t feel strong enough to take care of myself,” he conceded, encouraging us to move him into care alongside my mother.
In many respects, our family has been lucky; parents and children have tended to stare down the unpleasant realities of the situation, making decisions jointly and with a minimum of fuss.
Growing old is not pretty, as many geriatrics will attest, and it’s often distressing for family members to help loved ones make truly tough calls about their long-term healthcare. Typically, it’s also very difficult to get everyone involved to agree on the appropriate course of action.
Trish Noakes, founder of Just Better Care, a provider of personal, palliative and dementia care in NSW, Queensland, Victoria and the ACT, believes that the issue of who will care for someone when they are old is a sensitive one. “Children can be motivated by a strong sense of duty to care for their parents, yet the arrangement can often place families under severe strain. There’s also often a sense of guilt about the idea of putting Mum or Dad in a home.”
Before facing the reality of a nursing home, families must come to terms with dealing with a family member with dementia at home. Mel Green, who has experienced it firsthand with her husband’s parents as well as her own, says it’s heartbreaking. “Watching one parent being swallowed by dementia and the other grieving, while struggling to cope with their new role as a carer, is difficult for everyone,” she says. Denial, anger and frustration are common. “Often the best therapy is to be practical. For me that meant investigating what help was available. The Department of Health and Ageing became my No.1 resource, and arranging for an ACAT [Aged Care Assessment Team; see column far right] for my stepfather was an important first step towards getting support for my mother.”
Green also found it comforting to create meaningful family moments. “My mother-in-law was a great cook and was aware that her memory was failing,” she says. “So we organised a family day where we cooked all her favourite dishes and made a family recipe book.” As time passed and the Alzheimer’s worsened, “we created photo albums with pictures of her sons and their families, all labelled to help her remember.” Green says in the end they were small gestures, but “they brought the family together at a time when we all needed support”.