I’ve just returned from five weeks visiting family in Australia. When I told my Canadian friends I was going to be away, most were excited for me spending time in the Southern Hemisphere i.e. Summer “downunder”. They thought I was going to have a wonderful vacation. Being self-employed, I certainly felt fortunate to have the flexibility. While I was able to enjoy myself, it certainly was a challenge to see my father deteriorating and to observe myself expending emotional energy worrying about his ailing health. Since he was diagnosed with cancer last September, the primary purpose of my trip was to spend as much time with him as possible.
As I fall into the category of the busy baby boomer with an ageing parent, it doesn’t give me much comfort to know that I am not alone in juggling with a myriad of my own responsibilities as well as taking care of my father’s needs. I know there are many of you reading this who can relate. We love our parents, yet feeling like you are parenting them takes you on an emotional rollercoaster that may last for some time. Bring a sibling or two into the equation and multiply your family stress ten-fold. Suddenly, issues and resentments that you thought were buried bubble to the surface. Then throw in the guilt for living in another country, state, province or city and not being physically available most of the year.
The entire experience made me think about the implications within our society regarding living longer, as well as the fact that eldercare is just as important as childcare. It also made me think about caregivers…people who spend on average 35 hours a month looking after a senior. In 2007, Statscan reported that 70% of care is provided by a family member. In Australia, the figure is 80%. In the US 22.4 million households already provide care to a family member over fifty, according to the American Association for Retired People (AARP). Most caregivers are between the ages of 45 – 64 and a huge percentage still work full-time. In addition, the pressure to manage the household, family, finances and work in uncertain economic times is taking a toll on family relationships overall.
In my situation, perhaps you may describe me as “lucky”. My father has not yet experienced any suffering since his diagnosis and he is almost 90 years old. Unfortunately, however, he spends an enormous amount of time alone and isolated. I knew that I had to address this issue and manage my expectations regarding help for my Dad. The healthcare system is under as much strain in Australia as most countries dealing with an ageing population. Families are realizing that we cannot rely on federal, provincial or state governments for help. Nursing homes are bursting at the seams and social services for the aged are stretched to the maximum. The tension within my own family (my brother runs a home-based business with his wife and has four children under the age of 9) continues to escalate as we know my Dad’s condition could change any time. The emotional intensity is not new to us. My mother passed away five years ago after suffering from acute dementia.
On a local level, I was grateful to find an organization in Sydney that arranges for volunteers to spend six hours a week with my father. That is the maximum number of hours provided by this service and I am billed directly each month through my credit card. Two gentlemen take my father shopping, out for coffee, to the bank or simply give him company. My Dad really looks forward to these visits and it gives me some comfort to know that he is not alone during those times.
Consider these global statistics. In 2000, approximately 605 million people were 60 years or older. By 2050, that number is expected to be close to 2 billion. At that time, seniors will outnumber children 14 and under for the first time in history! We all need to do our part to advance the need for greater eldercare support and boost awareness overall of becoming proactive as an agent of change for seniors. The day will inevitably come when we expect others to be thinking about us in our old age.