‘It was my mother,’ she said. ‘She went into high care and lived until she was 96. I lost the years, visiting daily, spoon-feeding her meals, and staying on top of her myriad medical issues. Then before I knew it I too was getting on in years.’
It’s an increasingly common story in the world of ageing parents, with some carers even dying ahead of their parents. Tragically, some parents do pass away young – from strokes, heart conditions, cancers. Yet those that don’t can seemingly last forever because conditions are perfect for longevity.
They live in the twilight nether known as high care where life goes on in a sort of secure routine – meals given, bathing and toileting accomplished, life-maintaining drugs administered including those to ward off the very depression that eventuates from such a monotonous routine. Yet any child of a parent in this zone knows the system isn’t quite there yet. High care inmates are generally washed, dressed and fed before being propped in front of the communal TV for the day. If they are lucky, kind volunteers might visit, or there is the occasional concert.
They are often seated in wheelchairs or Princess chairs, arranged in a semicircle to foster companionship, though most, because of varying stages of dementia, can no longer talk. Reduced to calling out wildly as if locked in some kind of recurrent, internal nightmare. One woman at my mother’s home seemed trapped in, watching her son play an eternal game of football. ‘Come on Phil. Come on!’ Her constant yelling out was clearly disturbing the others but they weren’t able to move away.
Any child or carer with a heart tries to supply relief from this semi-circle of despair; fresh fruit to supplement the pap, new clothes to add a splash of colour, turning on radios for those who can no longer remember how to do so, wheeling a parent around the block for some sunlight when they can no longer clamber into a car.
Yet, having a parent in high care also teaches you much about securing your own future. Those who lose their parents at an earlier age miss out on such important life lessons. So here are some tips based on my experience of having a 94-year-old mother in care with my antenna attuned to picking up all I can from the experience.
Have plenty of children at the ready.
If it’s not too late make sure you have plenty of children, one for each day of the week preferably. A Chinese woman in my mother’s home had seven children, each on a daily roster to cook Asian greens and rice, and then visiting to feed their mother her evening meal.
If that’s not possible, befriend your nieces and nephews.
If you don’t have your own children foster your relationships with your nieces and nephews. I noticed a woman aged 102 who was regularly visited by her niece. She could no longer read but her niece brought her in books and magazines so they could continue their shared love of literature.
Get your own physical health in check.
Make moves to improve your own health, sooner rather than later. My mother was very active. She was a ballroom dancer well into her 70s and she would walk on weekends even if it was just up the hill near her home. By 94 she couldn’t get up from her chair without help but could still shuffle the few steps necessary from her bed to the toilet or at the very least, away from that semi-circle.
People think exercise is just about staying slim and fit. The point people don’t consider is that regular exercise is also about maintaining blood flow to the brain, helping ward off dementia. A compelling reason to exercise if vanity doesn’t motivate.
Consider getting your doctor to do a health audit.
Something I found shocking when my mother first went into care was the presence of a man in a wheelchair, around my age, in his late 50s. He’d had a stroke and could no longer walk or talk. Up until that moment, he had been an important man, a CEO of a large company. He had a beautiful wife and daughters. I don’t think he could ever cope with his changed circumstances, being trapped in his own body and watching his forlorn wife and weeping daughters. So he just decided to stop eating, which effectively killed him.
I have a friend who lost both parents to strokes when they were in 50s – it happens more often than you might think. It is worth asking your doctor whether it might be time to consider taking blood-thinning medications.
Try not to put your own life on hold.
Don’t spread yourself too thin. When you have a parent who is over 90, and in my case one who had exercised and took everything in moderation, that parent could ostensibly live through until 102.
I started putting my life on hold — weekends away, overseas trips, due to the thought that my mother could die at any time. But because all her basic needs were met and because of a strong heart she just kept on going.
But I learnt something from meeting that woman in her 70s as she is where I will be in a few years time. You need to care, but you can’t be totally responsible for your parents. You need to live your own life so that you can get to where they are now.
I did eventually enlist the help of my children, only two of them, not seven, unfortunately, who took on visits to my mother making sure she was okay if I went away, on a small break to Byron Bay every now and again.
But they weren’t the ones sitting in the car park of her aged care facility saying, ‘I can’t go in. After all these years I can’t do this any longer. I can’t bear to see the vitamised food, the regimented routine, the fading of life, and a man my age after a stroke. I want my life back.’
Once or twice my husband accused me of whingeing. ‘What does it take you?’ he said. ‘An hour every second day? One afternoon on the weekend?’ But what he and others perhaps fail to recognise is that it’s not just about the time it takes so much as the worry. A parent’s reduced state can wrestle with your mind, robbing you of sleep and dominating your life.
As hard as it is you have to get on with your own life, by taking holidays and being kind to yourself. Parents in high care who have survived onslaughts that have robbed others of their lives may well live on for many years in this less than perfect set of conditions.
But you can’t help them if worrying about their plight kills you in the meantime. Think what you would want for your own children and know that similarly, your own parents would want you to enjoy your life just as they have enjoyed theirs.
Nadine is a travel, food and opinion writer and trainer at Open Colleges. She has been a contributor to The Age and Sunday Age, The Canberra Times, GAB – Australian Food and Travel blog, and Weekend Notes. Nadine also publishes travel and food articles on her own blog, Red Bag, Will Travel.