10 things I learned from parenting my parents

My Aged Care is the website that serves as a starting point for access to government-subsidised aged care services

Mitch Gibson’s life turned on a dime when her mum’s back problem spiralled into surgery, undiagnosed osteoporosis and then a brain bleed. She shares some of the advice she wishes others had shared with her as her dad was diagnosed with dementia and her parents moved into residential aged care.

By Mitch Gibson

Lesson #1: It can be unexpected, inconvenient and feel intrusive

Of all the things I learned growing up, no-one ever told me that one day I would have to parent or care for my own parents.  

There are moments in life that change everything. Mine happened 10 years ago one Sunday evening when my 79-year-old healthy and active Mum called to tell me she was in agony with a bad back.

It set off an absurd storyline: who knew simply rolling over in bed and bulging a disc onto a nerve would be life’s big game changer for her, Dad and I?

After a week or so of unsuccessful treatments, my mother had corrective spine surgery.

While recovering in a rehab facility, her undiagnosed advanced osteoporosis decided to spontaneously collapse several other vertebrae. Following a recommended treatment to halt Osteoporosis progression, Mum then had a brain bleed during an afternoon nap 2 days later.  

I had to break the news to my father as Mum was moved into intensive care.

We stood by Mum’s bed in the ICU, Dad praying quietly with his head bowed as I held the puke bag for Mum and stroked her forehead while she moaned in pain and disorientation.

Mum spent 6 months in hospital that year. When the doctors agreed she could return home, things weighed heavily on me. I knew it would be me who’d need to manage my parents' needs to keep them living in their own home with a decent quality of life.

Mitch (left) with her beloved dad and mum

Lesson #2: Wow, what a learning curve

We successfully managed to keep my parents living independently in their own home for another 5 years with Home Care Packages (HCP).

They’d possibly still be there if it weren’t for Dad’s unexpected dementia diagnosis, which made it impossible for him to remain at home.

Mum chose to live in an adjoining room to Dad in a residential aged care dementia facility - even though he was disappearing by degrees, she couldn’t bear to be separated from him.

My experience has taught me that in spite of the workload that comes with caring, family dynamics - particularly between siblings - can shift unexpectedly.

When the need to step up arrives, it’s common that others don’t step up in the same way or at the same time as you.  

Dissimilar relationships with our parents, conflicting opinions about important decisions, inability to cope with anticipatory grief, approaching inheritance and financial entitlements, are just a few flies in the ointment.

Ultimately, it’s what our parents want that should be important, but it’s rarely as simple as that.

Lesson #3: Conversations should start before you need to step up.

Families should ideally agree on things like:

  • What is needed in terms of food, medications, cleaning, safe transport, a functional and safe home to live in as our parents get older.
  • The best social and domestic services available in their location.
  • Making the existing home mobility-friendly, easily accessible and safe.

Even though some of our parents aren’t tech-savvy, can you take advantage of technology to help maintain your parents’ independence in their own home?

Lesson #4: Make sure documentation and advanced planning is signed and lodged before you need them

Advanced planning is sorting all the legal and health requirements your parents need before they need them.

It’s not only smart to makesure these documents are all up to date and lodged but it takes an emotional load off if any health issues arise quickly.

  • Get a last Will and testament lodged with your lawyer - read more about 7 ways to make a Will watertight and whether a free online Will is right until you get a lawyer to draft one. The last thing you need is for your parents to die intestate - it’s one more headache you won’t need!
  • Sort an enduring power of attorney to manage your parents’ financial affairs and an enduring guardian who can make health and lifestyle decisions. Read more about Living Wills.

 An advanced care directive(ACD) is a record of values, life goals, preferred outcomes in a life-threatening situation. Once signed, a copy is usually given to your family, your GP and other treating doctors.

It’s worth noting that Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) cannot be included in an Advanced Care Directive, as the ACD only comes into effect when you no longer have decision-making capacity.

VAD usually requires the person to have capacity throughout the entire process and the exact criteria varies slightly across all states and territories. Search online for current info or talk with your GP to find out the best approach.

Lesson #5: Take advantage of Home Care Packages

We’re lucky in Australia that our government allocates significant funding to the Home Care Package (HCP) program.

This not only keeps our ageing population out of the medical system for longer, it assists with household tasks, mobility equipment, minor home modifications, transport, recreational activities, subsidised frozen meal delivery, personal and allied clinical care.

Sure, your parents will probably be like mine and push back but it’s the best way to keep parents living independently while sharing the care load.

Another note: The wait list for HCP services can be significant, so often an enduring guardian can enquire about applying while your parents are still wrestling with accepting the idea.

Experiencing a life-changing illness or injury will usually accelerate things. You can apply for an online assessment here.

Lesson #6: The Webster Pack is your friend

As our ageing parents’ medical needs escalate, medications and supplements can become difficult to manage.

Your local chemist can dispense all their meds and supplements in a Webster Pack, which sets out their medications for each time of the day, each day of the week. They’re a low-cost godsend.

Lesson #7: Safety and falls

As the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare confirms, falls are the leading cause of injury hospitalisation and death for older people and are most likely to happen at home.

Personal alert systems can bring 24/7 peace of mind to our parents and carers - particularly if a parent  lives alone. Read more on technology that can help ageing parents maintain their independence.

Lesson #8: Make friends with the social worker

Hospitals, rehab facilities and other places sick people are treated often have social workers.  

They can be worth their weight in gold as an initiation into this complex world of caring for our parents, knowing the landscape and helping you find great resources.

Lesson #9: End of life conversations about what a ‘good death’ looks like

It may seem awkward, but it’s never too soon to ask people what they want their death to be like.

What are their preferences when it's time to leave this world? Do they want to be at home, or in a hospital or facility?

What do they want in terms of a funeral or memorial service and what are their expectations with ashes or headstones?

Do they want to be buried, cremated or donate their organs or body to science?  

These priceless interactions can begin with discomfort, though often finish with a mutual sense of reward.

Many people facing their mortality are more ready and welcoming of the conversation than we imagine.  I suggest:

  • An agenda can add structure, though respecting their wishes with sensitivity should be a priority.
  • Establish what’s most important to them, and don’t be in a hurry.
  • Know that silence can be an important buffer to the intensity, or a chance to ponder.

Read more about interesting ways to say your final goodbye and donating your organs or body to science.

Lesson #10: If I knew then what I know now

My Dad has since passed. My Mum is still with us.

I would’ve loved to have spent less time being the problem solver, fixer, project manager - and just been their daughter: the sparker of joy; the maker of great memories.

I’d outsource and lean into more resources.

I’d better understand anticipatory grief.

I’d ask them to make me a short video message – something I could replay when they’re gone, like a message of love from beyond.  

And I’d take better care of myself - physically and emotionally.

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