For most of our lives, our parents take care of us. Even when we’re past the feeding/clothing/schooling stage, they remain our ballast in life. We turn to them for a loan to tide us over, a place to stay while we renovate, regular child-minding or a shoulder to cry on in tough times.
But what happens when it’s our parents who need looking after? When they can no longer live independently and have to rely on others? Suddenly the roles we’ve played all our lives are reversed.
It’s a difficult adjustment for both the adult child and their ageing parent. “Nobody ever wants to think it’s going to happen – that your parents are going to be that dependent, particularly on you,” says Anne Hollonds, the chief executive of the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS).
Parents accustomed to a lifetime of looking out for their children are reluctant to admit they now need their help. An AIFS report found that the older people were, the less likely they were to think younger generations should help their parents with money or accommodation.
Meanwhile adult children struggle with conflicting feelings of guilt, sadness and resentment – underscored by a deep sense of filial duty – as they try to figure out what is best for their parents in their twilight years.
“A lot of the time it is more about the adult children letting go,” says Baptist Care’s Norma Roumanus, who helps families find aged care. “Are they throwing Mum and Dad away, are they avoiding their responsibilities?
“They feel like their parents are little children and they have to make the decision for them, but they’re not sure what they want.”
Three women share the challenges they faced, and the difficult decisions they had to make, when their surviving parent could no longer live without help.
Miya Bradley, 42, brought her 87-year-old father to Australia so she could supervise his in-home care.
Miya Bradley and her father. Photo: Supplied
My dad’s American, but he lived as an expat in Japan for 50 years. My parents divorced when I was a baby and he raised me. I moved to Australia 17 years ago. I have a half-sister who lives in California, but she’s paralysed on her left side.
My father’s housekeeper in Japan started noticing changes in him. He’s diabetic and has short-term memory loss. Because there’s no family there, she asked me what my plans were.
I didn’t feel like giving up my life here and moving to Japan to look after my father so we moved him to the States first, where he has a brother, but it was a disaster. He just couldn’t relate to America after 50 years in Japan.
So five years ago I said, “Dad, Australia is really nice, let’s give it a go. It’s just a plane ride; if it doesn’t work, you can go back to Japan.”
The first two years here he went through depression. It was really hard – he was over 80, his entire life involved Japan. He kept saying, “Why, why, why?” But my focus on my father was diluted because my partner was going through a horrific divorce [with his ex-wife].
The attention I needed to give my father wasn’t there: I only recognised that later on. It is the one thing I will forever regret – but until we become old ourselves we never truly understand all the emotional things one goes through.
My father lives around the corner from me in a very small unit; it has beautiful views. I’ve made a lot of adjustments so that he can live independently for as long as possible. I’ve set up his phone so he just has to press a picture of me to make a call, I covered all the buttons on the microwave except for start and stop, I got him a medical bracelet, and I installed a security camera.
I’m trying to keep the person he is, but equally adapt to his ageing. Because I work full-time, my father has a carer who comes in every day to prepare his meals and take him to his activities. I do the grocery shopping, the laundry, look after the medication. I call him every morning at 9am and prompt him to take it. Everything you would do for your child, I now do for my father.
As I’m getting older, I feel I need more support. I wish I had someone to talk to. I have friends who can listen, but, at 87, my father is much older than their fathers.
It’s so hard to transition from the father/daughter relationship to the carer/senior relationship. All those years of, “Dad, you give me strength, you give me guidance, you’re the one I rely on…” I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get over the fact my father is no longer my father, he’s a senior person.
Cheryl Soper, 54, lives with her 84-year-old father, who has dementia.
Cheryl Soper lives with her father. Photo: Supplied
My father had a stroke in 2010; a year later, my mother passed away. I’ve been my father’s full-time carer since then. First I lived with him on our farm near Tamworth [in north-east NSW], but as his dementia got worse, we moved into town, where there are more facilities.
I thought I might be able to work, but I can’t leave him too long. His dementia has tied me to him. He can eat and he can shower, but he needs direction. He’s gone from being a very active man, hard-working from sun-up to sundown, to having no motivation. He gets confused, he repeats things, he’ll go wandering in the middle of the night.
I get frustrated. I think, “You’re keeping me from actually living. One, I’d have more money, and two, I’d have a life.” Sometimes I get bored out of my mind. I’m doing a TAFE course online; at least it gives me something to do while he’s just sitting there.
We get respite care every Wednesday, which is brilliant, and he goes to the local men’s shed with a carer twice a week. Otherwise, it’s just him and me. It’s like groundhog day every day. It’s very repetitious, it’s draining.
I’m only 54 and I’ve basically had no social life for a few years now and it’s obviously going to get worse. I can’t go out for dinner impromptu. Everything revolves around getting back home to him. It’s like having a child.
I have a brother in Sydney, but for him it’s “out of sight, out of mind”. There has been no disagreement, he just doesn’t have to deal with it, so I have no backup.
I have done the paperwork for a nursing home, but [for now] my dad’s not too hard to look after. I’d have to be really pushed [to put him in a home]. I do have my limits though – if his bowel movements got out of control, or he couldn’t go into the shower, or he got abusive, that would be the end of it.
My father used to say when he saw someone with an illness, “If I ever get like that, put me down a wombat hole.” But I guarantee you now, he wouldn’t want to go into one. He doesn’t want to be a burden, but now he’s got dementia he’d rather be at home.
Some days I think, “He’s got to go,” and then I think, “No he doesn’t.” He’s still my dad. I’ll never regret looking after him. I feel it is something I have to do. When you were little, your parents didn’t go, “You’re inconvenient, I’ll just leave you there.”
Judy Benson, 59, moved her 92-year-old mother into an aged-care facility after a series of falls.
Judy Benson moved her mother into an aged-care home. Photo: Supplied
My mum and I have always been very close. She lost her husband, my dad, when I was 11 so she’s been mum and dad most of my life. We lived fairly close to each other, and as she got older I was there a lot, bringing her meals and so on. We tried to keep her at home as long as we could, and we had people coming in to help her. We tried to get reliable people but it’s not always easy.
Mum’s mobility got progressively worse. She was having falls: she had one fall in the middle of the night and lay on the floor until daylight before she called because she didn’t want to worry me.
Eventually her hip went. The doctors said, “She can’t go back home.” She couldn’t come and live with me because her health was [deteriorating]. She knew the best option was an aged-care facility.
I was dreading the actual final decision [but] she made it much easier for me because she was so accepting. She’d been in respite care before when I went on holidays, which gave her a taste of what it was like.
Looking for the best aged care is a bit like looking for the best preschool for your toddler. It’s very much instinct. My mum has worked hard all her life and my goal was to fi nd her somewhere nice. Ultimately, it’s your mum – you want to do the very best by her, because she’s done her best by me.
I had a brother; he died of cancer some years ago. It’s really only me, which has made it easier in a way, but there is no one to share the load of decision-making. It was very hard clearing out a whole house of memories and possessions and trying to condense that down to one room – what does she take with her?
I have two adult daughters and a grandson I look after. I also have a business managing events. It is a juggling process, but hey, we women are great at multi-tasking. If you stop to think about it, then it becomes overwhelming.
The first facility Mum went into, she said, “I’d rather be dead in a way than be here,” which was quite unusual for my mum because she’s usually easy to please.
A friend had done a lot of research and she recommended a centre. Mum’s been there for seven years and it really is her home now. The staff are like her second family. They’ve really helped her maintain some sense of independence. It’s given me peace of mind and I can go off to work and not worry.
I’ve heard of people going into aged care and two weeks later they’re gone, but with Mum it has probably prolonged her life. She’s 92 and in a wheelchair, she’s now blind and she has very little hearing. The other day I said, “How are you?” She said, “It’s a beautiful day.” I love her optimism.