While we waste precious column inches and TV air time on a useless debate about who is worse today, the baby boomer or the millennial generations, the brave generation before the boomers languish in aged care beds, rotting, disintegrating, becoming invisible as the idea of ageing appears to offend us.
There are older people forced into selling their homes for a much in demand aged care bed because there are no family members willing or able to care for them, more often than not the elderly do not wish to be a burden on their families. The fact that they even feel this way is a cultural black mark against our western civilisation. Our oldest culture respects their elders, takes advice from them and in many cases they are regarded as leaders of their people.
Paying to buy a bed in a private nursing home that makes promises to care for them as they would their own family members is a deception that many elderly fall victim to. Shiny entries are all clean and smelling fresh, a few happy nursing home residents are rolled out and potential newbies are shown only select areas while the horrible truth of inadequate staff and facilities are hidden out of sight by profiteers and their agents of gloom.
My dad is 84, he is currently independent and healthy, living in his own home downstairs in a self contained flat we built from his garage. It is large, clean, sunny, airy, spacious, with a bedroom, a bathroom and it is also a safe aged care space as he continues to get a bit less mobile and a bit shuffly. We relocated from Canberra two years ago when I realised my mother was unwell, she and my dad were not coping at all. Sadly mum lived for only six months after we moved here, she had a fall and broke her hip, we got her home for a few weeks but she deteriorated rapidly. Death did not come gently to her. Dad was shocked to find himself alone and grief stricken over the woman he had shared his life with for nearly 60 years
Dad was never a cook and cleaner as mum did all that type of work, he is a stout Irishman, we immigrated here in 1964. He worked two jobs, one tapping beers in a cellar at night after working seven hours labouring outside installing gas lines or building roads. When I was about seven or eight mum got a job as a barmaid and then later worked for a health fund for many years, she loved working but then she also had two jobs, the one at home and the one she caught the bus, then train to and from every weekday. They were amazing parents in tough times. I am repaying my debt to them for their devotion to me.
I was initially oblivious to my mother’s deterioration, a busy life in Canberra working at Parliament House in my own bubble, my daughter my priority as she hit eighteen and became problematic. My current husband was busy with a demanding job. All of this and I neglected two of the most important people I have been privileged to have in my life, my parents. I spoke to mum often, sent her flowers and little cards. I suspect these were my guilt gifts.
After Labor lost government and I lost my job, my husband and I decided to take a four month sabbatical and take our caravan from Canberra to Cairns and back. It was magical until we called into my parents home to stay for a few days before heading back to Canberra. The shock hit my like a boulder falling on my head from above. My mother frail, a little dishevelled, shuffling abut the house trying to pretend that all was well. My dad looking a bit haunted and very stressed, he too was not the robust father I saw last time. How had it happened? It seemed so quick, but it was not quick, only my life had passed quickly and I had rarely seen them in three years.
This is how I came to look after my dad and more importantly how aged care has become a passion.
We would not leave our children alone in a place foreign to them, with untrained and seemingly uncaring staff to supervise them, yet we do this to the many people who have nurtured us, made massive contributions to the country we live in and paid taxes. Many of those elderly people in nursing homes never thought that the houses they had hoped to leave for their children would have to be sold to provide their ongoing care.
What would you do if you came to visit your child in hospital and found them laying in their own faeces with the most unappetising food congealed on a plate next to them, because nobody had time to feed it to them? Would you say anything to the staff if you noticed bruises or bumps, blood stained clothing on any of the patients not just your own child? How is it that we can treat our elderly as discarded pieces of furniture that are worn out and faded? Why do we allow them to become invisible rather than embrace their knowledge, listen to how they lived, how they enjoyed or toiled? We know the conditions are appalling for aged care staff, it does not mean we should accept this as a given.
We go about our own lives as if it will never happen to us, but older people are a reminder that it will happen and it will come upon us just as quickly. We will live longer and with more chronic illnesses, so the chance of being exiled into a nursing home for even longer periods is even greater.
Woken at 6am for a cup of tea if you’re lucky, less lucky if you are a coffee drinker and love to stay in bed until later. Covers pulled back exposing your old bones to a chilly morning or to freezing air conditioning, escorted to a cold bathroom or hefted bodily into a commode chair, then showered quickly, rarely dried off entirely and clothes thrown on if you are unable to dress yourself. If you are relatively good at managing your hygiene, expect to be left alone in the bathroom and told to stay there till someone comes to get you, it can be a long lonely wait in a cold bathroom. Then not back to your warm bed where it is quiet and you can go back to sleep, no, placed in a chair a large lounge area, with a TV blaring and others around you strapped in to their chairs with a sheet or perhaps at a table with a bib on awaiting breakfast, not due for another hour yet. It is now only 8am, the whole day awaits you in this cold, sad lonely nursing home, with only memories if you still have them to keep you entertained. Most of the residents just sleep what is left of their lives as it ebbs away.
I have painted the most dastardly picture as it is the one I am most familiar with, I trained as an aged care nurse, starting aged fifteen, over 40 years ago. There are some good nursing homes, some are well staffed and have nurses who know how to care for skin, to prevent bed sores, to dress wounds and listen to stories. These type of homes are the hugely expensive ones. Sadly many of our residential care homes are poorly staffed, have a lack of facilities, a lack of proper nutrition and are poorly cleaned. Food is provided through a private service, often as cheaply as possible and in small portions.
I work part time in an electorate office in a low to middle socio economic regional area, the constituents that come to see us have issues with Centrelink, the NDIS, NBN and telcos, aged care or even child support issues. We rarely have people come to see our MP about politics or policies, or even local issues.
Last month a lady came in to the office, she had a soft voice, a tiny little woman, aged around sixty, I will call her Carol. She told me the nice man at Centrelink sent her to us to help. It was during the interview about her Centrelink situation Carol told me about her mother who was in hospital in intensive care, not expected to live for much longer due, allegedly to a lack of care at her nursing home. Her mum is a paraplegic after a stroke and could no longer be cared for at home, so the kids sold the family home to pay for a bed at the local nursing home, a reputable one by all accounts.
Carol’s mother was in hospital due to infected burns, not from a heater or a fire, but from her own urine and faeces. Left in a nappy for hours and with a urinary tract infection, her urine burned her crepe paper like skin which immediately became infected. The lesions on her skin went untreated for days until she fell our of bed and was found unconscious. The hospital called to advise Carol her mother was seriously ill in hospital, not the nursing home.
We must do better, we must protest, we must fight for the rights of those elderly who can no longer fight for themselves. Refugees are important, veterans are important, abused children and battered women are important. Many of those have advocate groups, lobbyists, voices to speak for them. Who is screaming for our elderly parents and grandparents, our aunts, uncles, friends, as the ones who still have their minds in tact are left screaming inside for some vestige of respect and humanity?
I will care for my dad until he passes, if it becomes too hard because he gets too ill then I will employ nurses to help me, this cannot be everyone’s choice for many reasons I know that, but house sharing is an option.
In the end it is us, the families that must take responsibility for those who took care of us. If we have folk in homes we must visit regularly, participate in their care, provide food, even washing clothes. This will keep the residential care operators on notice, we must call out anything we see, we must be brave and form little communities within these care homes, so we can keep an eye on each other’s relatives too. Let’s encourage local primary school groups to adopt a granny or grandad, perhaps visiting once a week or even once a month. Not all older folk have families and they too must have appropriate care. Each aged care facility could be a training opportunity for local Tafes once restored, dietitians, assistant nurses, assistant chiropodists, hairdressers, barbers and so on. It can be limitless with the right leaders and the right vision.
We must take time out for elder care the same way we do for childcare.