It has been interesting these last couple of weeks of the Xmas/New Year break from work as we have had the chance to spend time with many members of our family as we gathered to celebrate the festive season together.
As we get older and we have to deal with the lives of aging parents all sorts of new issues start to arise and new challenges begin to surface. As we keep getting reminded in the media we are now part of an aging community and the care and support of those in our lives who are in their senior years becomes more of a focus. I had started to go through this realisation from personal experience just over 3 1/2 years ago when my father started to show some significant signs of Alzheimer’s. This was a challenge for all of us as it was a tough road to travel with him and my step mum who for much of the first time did not want to admit that there was anything wrong. It took her having to go into hospital for an extended time when she was diagnosed with cancer that it all really came to a head.
Trevor and I had headed over to Melbourne to have time with him and to be in the house with him whilst my step-mother was in hospital. It soon became clear that in the 4 months since we had last been in Melbourne that he had deteriorated even further than we had believed he had. I was aware that things were getting tougher for him, when in our phone calls he would often get confused and repeat stories to me over the course of an hour-long conversation without any recollection of having told me or asked me about something, but I was not ready for how rapidly he had declined and how to really be able to deal with it.
Once we had my step-mother settled into hospital for her operation we arranged to have an ACAT done to asses his ability to stay at home and to see if it was advisable to have him at home or look for alternatives. When my step-mother had serious complications from her surgery and we realised that she would be in hospital for an extended time and that my Dad was not coping without the routine that he had gotten into with her and with her absent was struggling with many day-to-day things that we take for granted.
After the ACAT was done the assessment was that staying at his home by himself was not an option and we looked at placing him temporarily in respite accommodation next door to the hospital that my step-mother was in so he would be close to her and able to see her every day. We did all the paper work and sorted it all out and then on the day that this was meant to happen he flatly refused to go and insisted that he should stay in his house and he would just drive in to see my step-mother each day. This was not an option as he really was not capable of getting into his car and driving anywhere as he easily became disoriented and confused.
His deterioration was rapid at this time as he was not coping at all well with his wife being away from him and we in fact nearly lost her on a couple of occasions and she was placed in ICU at the Alfred Hospital. He got more and more confused, angry and upset and it became very hard to support him at this time. He often forgot who we were and thought on a couple of occasions that we were from the hospital there to help him with the things that he needed to do.
At this time I started to look around at options for him, as it was clear that when we left he would not be able to stay in his house and he would also not be able to be there and look after his wife when she came out of hospital as she would need constant care and he was not able to do that. I looked at 11 different units for people with Alzheimer’s and came away from the search quite depressed with the options that were around. Dad seemed to then become focussed and less confused and we stupidly thought that it would be okay to leave him at the house for a couple of days before my step-mother came out of hospital. Well what a mistake. The first night after we had gone down to see my Mother, my Dad had a complete melt down and became very confused, lost and late in the evening the next door neighbour had to call an ambulance to come and take him to hospital as there was a fear that he might harm himself.
He was placed in a secure ward and given medication to try to control what was going on and I have to say it was a heartbreaking time for all of us, including him as he was often disoriented and confused. In the meantime I had found a facility just down the road from his house that had a room available for him to move into and as a family we made the decision that this would be the best thing for him at this time.
Alzheimer’s is such a difficult disease to understand and to cope with, both for the person going through it and all the family and friends. The confusion, lack of recognition, failure of short-term memory and other associated issues are a real trial. Over the next couple of months on my trip home to Melbourne I saw even more of a deterioration and it really was heartbreaking to sit with him and not have him know me and confuse me for his brother who had died 15 years before.
By this stage my step-mother was out of hospital and on the way to making a full recovery and was visiting my dad every day. The Doctors and the social worker all met and advised that it would be best for him to stay where he was as he would not be able to live in his home with the ability to act properly. We also decided to try to find a better facility to put him in, as the one that he was in was really quite old and there were many other options in the local area.
This was done and he was moved but not for long as he was getting angrier and angrier and constantly trying to climb out of windows to escape his confinement to try to get home to Liverpool to see his mother. He was also starting to get quite violent and the staff at the facility he was in were not able to adequately handle him and he had to be returned to a more secure high security facility so he would not do any harm to himself (as the windows were all locked) and he would be looked after by more staff.
This was the situation for the next year and then one day I received a call from my step-sister to tell me that my Dad had stopped eating all of a sudden and was no longer talking any more. This was quite a sudden change for him and I think some part of his being had decided that he had enough and it was time to leave us. 5 days later he died…
All of this was a precursor for this past Xmas when my Mum came to Perth for her regular trip and it became clear that this might be her last trip over to Perth. I was last in Melbourne in September to help her pack her house up and move her into St Johns Retirement Village as it had become obvious to us that she was no longer coping with her house in Somerville and the steps and the way it was laid out were a hindrance to her as she had struggled for some time with mobility issues and arthritis that had made it very hard for her to move freely around without the aid at first of a walking stick and then of a walker.
We had given her the option to move to Perth and move into somewhere close to us so we could be more able to aid with things but she wanted to stay in Melbourne close to her friends and the grand children in Melbourne and so Melbourne it was to stay.
It was a tough decision for her to make to move to St Johns as she lover her place and her neighbours and was happy there but she also recognised how difficult it was to live in that house without a range of changes to make it easier for her. St John’s offered a range of things that she was now not receiving to make her life easier. Thanks to my nephew, who lives close by, and does a wonderful job supporting her in my absence, they found one of the units that was for sale and that had all the things that she needed. It meant downsizing from 3 bedrooms to 2 but it was still a good size with lots of space for all of her possessions. What it did mean was that mobility would be easier and getting around would be simpler.
I headed to Melbourne once the sale of her place had gone through and a settlement date was set to help pack up Mum’s house and move her into the retirement village. It was a full on week of deciding what to keep and what to give to St Vinnie’s and there some interesting discussions on what needed to be taken and what could go. As we all know moving is a really stressful time and having to move not because you really want to but need to because of other issues makes it an even tougher time. But move we did and my nephew and his wife and I got my Mum packed up and moved into her new unit.
She settled in and even though there were things that she was not always happy with, because the unit was not her previous home she settled in and is adjusting well to her life at St John’s. The mobility of course still plagues her daily and the pain associated with her arthritis is a constant. She has a number of other things associated with this and the medications that she is on but on the whole seems to cope well. She has however had a few falls and being at St John’s when this has happened they have been able to help really quickly.
What we noticed with this trip was that when at home she knows where everything is and is more mobile but when staying with us is a little more unsure and does not tend to move around as much, even though we attempt to encourage her to be more mobile. Being in unfamiliar surroundings, (even though she has come to us for Xmas for over 10 years) adds to her anxiety and makes her less confident with moving around and it really became clear that this would probably be her last trip to us this year for Xmas.
She was the one who said that this trip was more of a struggle and that another trip would be hard for her to make. The realisation that age had really caught up with her and that she would not be coming back to spend time with us again was a sad one for all of us. It just made us resolve to do more trips back to Melbourne to visit and to try to get the grandchildren over to see her at least once a year as well. Getting her to the airport on Saturday morning and seeing her onto the plane was really tough and she got really upset to leave us.
As we all age and our parents get older the challenges that they face and that we face in being their and supporting them get tougher and tougher but in the end all we can do is try our hardest to be as good to them as they have been to us in our lives. We need to love and support them and help them in any way we can to make the senior years of their lives and comfortable as possible.
Even after 2 1/2 years my Dad is with me constantly and his memory never diminishes in my mind and heart. That is not to say that there are days when I feel sad remembering how tough the last couple of years were for him but I am also grateful that the confusion and suffering he went through is over.
Aging can be tough at times and as we deal with a population that is not getting any younger we need to make sure that we have the services and supports in place to deal with it properly and can give those in our lives that are getting older our love, support and the ability to keep their dignity and independence for as long as possible.