My mother is sitting in her special chair. It is a grey faux suede adjustable number, the back legs slightly higher than the front, making for a relatively easy getaway on her walker. She is wearing black pants, a red top, black ballet pumps and glittery earrings. She is almost 101.
I am sitting opposite her in my spot. We are having breakfast, mum with her regular mix of several cereals, a spoon of honey and half a chopped banana, me with my usual oatmeal. Routine is the order of the day.
We review the shopping list – at the supermarket, do we need more bananas, potatoes, corn, cauliflower; at the plant nursery list, will it be yellow petunias or red, pink primula or purple cineraria; and then there are the medical appointments for the eye specialist and vertigo expert. These lists turn over daily. We discuss her forthcoming outing to bridge, will she stay for the whole session or come home for lunch?
Later in the morning I hear her talking to one of her cronies. It is usually about health issues. She says, referring to me, “Sandy had a couple of NRMA scans on her upper and lower abdomen.” Mum has always had a fine line in malapropisms. She told me she enjoys her exercise classes, especially the lychee sessions.
Fifteen years ago, my mother had a hip replacement after falling off a chair laughing. Ten years ago, she had to stop driving because she accidentally accelerated into a neighbour’s letterbox. Then she had a second hip operation after falling over in her bedroom. Five years ago, she was doing quite well although she was forced to use a walker. But it did not stop her moving around the garden heedless of family warnings about the possibility of life-threatening falls.
A family member started talking about a variety of “nice facilities” for mum. What? Oh, you mean an old people’s home. Seeing my mother’s face crumple at the suggestion and thinking this very old lady would not last long in such a place – recent investigations into aged care having validated that thought – I cash in my long-service leave and take a semester off from my university to live with my mother in her suburban home.
My major concern was to offer my mother a helping hand. I was not planning to give up my job permanently. However, it soon became clear that my mother ne both company and care. So we fall into our daily routine, and in doing so become part of a growing phenomenon – children in their 60s and 70s who are spending their retirement years caring for their parents who are in their 90s and beyond.
Because of longer life spans, many adult children and their parents are now “aging together”. In less than 30 years there will be 7.5 million Australians with an average life expectancy of 90. Who will take care of them?
Looking after my mother’s health takes a lot of time – she has always been anxious about health matters, her own and the family’s. She seems happiest talking about incipient coughs, colds, sore throats, toothache, dizzy spells, gastric upsets, blocked ear canals, running noses and sore eyes.
At the smallest reason we haul the walker into the car and go to the clinic. She loves her GP and feels safe when in constant consultation. She has regular injections in her right eyeball to relieve a swollen artery that is affecting the retina. She has hearing aids that always seem to need checking, cleaning, recalibrating. She has to see her optometrist to get her glasses updated. She has regular consultations with her physiotherapist, podiatrist, occupational therapist. She has just had an assortment of imperceptible blemishes lasered off her face. She looks like she has the plague.
As well as the hip replacements and hearing aids, she has false teeth, intraocular lenses, and a touchy gut. She has frequent crippling bouts of dizziness, she cannot walk unassisted and she ne protection pants. But she has her marbles. Her favourite television night of the week is Monday when she watches Channel Nine News, followed by all the ABC TV programs. She watches in bed using her special headphones. She reads the Weekend Australian cover to cover, she listens to the news and the shock jocks on commercial radio, as well as Radio National. When she goes to bridge, she plays to win.
‘When she goes to bridge, she plays to win.’ Photograph: Tim Ireland/AP
One day when we are chatting about some family event – when was the last time we all holidayed at Mollymook – she says, “I will look it up.” She produces a school work book (she used to be a primary school teacher) filled with her writing. She finds the date. Amazed, I ask her about it. She says there are others. She gives me a pile of maybe a dozen notebooks filled with her jottings. She has written a memoir. I tell her we should put it in my computer.
And so it begins. She sits in her chair, reading out from her notebooks. I sit at my computer nearby and start taking it down. I edit as we go, asking mum to clarify details, rephrase, refine, explain. Her story starts with her birth in a country town hospital, tells of growing up on the family farm, her determination not to marry a farmer and to train instead as a teacher, her marriage to my father, a high school teacher, and so on.
Typing and editing her memoir and living with my mother allows me to see an ordinary woman of extraordinary grit and resolve. She and my father walk away from their family backgrounds – my mother her farming family, my father his hardscrabble life in a mining town – save up, buy a car, buy a house, finish it with things my mother thinks define style. Persian carpets, velvet upholstered chairs, crystal goblets, silver service. My father called it “elegant junk”. It’s a million miles from a small wheat and sheep farm and the grim realities of life underground in a silver mine.
Time passes and my long-service leave is up. I have to make a decision. Mum at home or in a home? I resign from my job as a university lecturer to become my mother’s primary carer. How hard will that be? I have set up a little office at my mother’s. I have my computer, printer and the internet. I will become a sessional lecturer, write during the day and continue my role as a committee member of Sydney Pen, produce and write the Pen magazine, stay connected to my faculty.
Only most of that does not happen. The days are taken up with the minutiae of looking after the ne of an old lady. I supervise her shower, help her dress, especially if she is going to bridge or an exercise session. I struggle with her to put on panty hose and negotiate bunions, troublesome heels and jam her feet, at her insistence, into fancy shoes. She asks for help with her make-up – a little eye shadow and brow pencil, a little rouge. I line up her “jewels” – necklaces and earrings and she makes her choice. Often I do her hair, which I cut every fortnight. She has nice white hair. I spike it up with a little hairspray. She is ready. The end result is pretty good. It has taken two hours.
I had thought my time with my mother would allow me plenty of opportunity for my own interests. But these days my routine is centred on my mother’s neighbourhood, a pretty leafy suburb of young couples with small children, mid-career couples with teenagers, and retirees. It’s a world away from my vibrant inner-city life of Victorian terraces, galleries, cafes, local markets, diverse community.
I have to make big adjustments. My mother and I are polar opposites politically. I have not yet learnt to turn off, ignore, overlook. We do talk about death, not her actual death but the aftermath. It’s a rather academic discussion. She wants to be buried not cremated. The farmer’s daughter likes the idea of literally pushing up the daisies.
Although we have always been able to talk about everything, in the years I have been caring for my mother, I have often thought I do not really know her. As a teenager, I was preoccupied with the angst that goes with that stage of life; in my 20s, I was preoccupied with the challenges of establishing a career and a relationship; in my 30s, I was preoccupied with the responsibility of being a magazine editor, feature writer and parent. And so it continued into my 40s and 50s. I did not pay all that much attention to my parents until my father had a massive stroke and died at the relatively young age of 65. Then I woke up.
Now I look at my mother and ask her, did you always want velvet upholstered chairs, a china cabinet full of crystal and silver, Frenchified bedroom furniture? My father, the son of a miner, did not care, he seemed happiest reading history and pondering the existence of God, as lapsed Catholics do. He was in love with my mother. He went along with her.
Being a carer is not an easy gig. I find I often feel impatient, annoyed, cranky – and then guilty.
So she is now surrounded by all her elegant junk, and still fussing about the annuals she wants planted in the garden, the endless drive to prune, chop and control any plant or shrub taller than herself. She is still fussing about her clothes (“What are you planning to buy for your wardrobe this season, darling?”). It is only in the last year that I have persuaded her to wear flat shoes, only now is she persuaded to wear soft, elasticised pants.
Being a carer is not an easy gig. I find I often feel impatient, annoyed, cranky – and then guilty. But anger happens. Frustration happens. Depression happens. One of my bugbears is my mother’s stubbornness. It seems to me that parental stubbornness is a complicating factor in a carer’s life. One of the scariest things to people as they age is that they don’t feel in control anymore. So when I ask my mother not to undertake risky jobs in the garden, she will agree and then go out and do just that. It seems to me that it’s a way of holding on to a life that seems to be slipping away.
Whether that means she is independent or intransigent depends on who’s making the call. I think the best approach is: Do not pick arguments. Do not make a parent feel defensive. Plant an idea, step back, and bring it up later. Be patient.
I have now come to agree.
Dr Sandra Symons is a writer and researcher at the University of Technology, Sydney